Under my clothes my skin still kept the joy given by the salt water, the freshness had not left my blood.
REBECCA WEST’S EXCURSION in Yugoslavia is coming to an end. That is clear in this slight chapter dedicated to Montenegro. Here intrigue settles onto the narrative like an omen. Her companions, including her driver Dragtuin, the akiltered Constantine, and a local official, appear agitated and constantly bickering. Over and over they stumble across fresh indication of nefarious designs on Yugoslavia as foreign figures continue to appear after crossing the Albanian frontier only a few miles away.
West admires this small, cragged country and attributes a national heroic spirit to its mountain people. By her companions’ telling, this national characteristic nearly led to her demise. She describes another small set piece in which she and her husband hike a mountain led by a young guide who loses his way in the mist. His martial pride prevents him from admitting that he is lost before Constantine finds them descending toward a slippery escarpment that the locals, except for the guide, are convinced West and her husband would surely fall from to their deaths. A hero would brave the descent despite the risk, it is implied, rather that admit he had failed in navigating his own ground.
This graze with death does not upset West. But she appears distracted. Her interest in the local environment and its people feels rote by this point. Something else is on her mind. She has spent the previous several weeks and more than 1,000 pages describing in close and sympathetic detail the difference, beauty, and meaning of different cultures and nations. This extrospection at last swings inward to consider the worth of her own country which is as threatened by the fascist juggernaut as any other country in Europe. She writes:
My civilization must not die. It need not die. My national faith is valid, as the Ottoman faith was not. I know that the English are as unhealthy as lepers compared with perfect health. They do not give themselves up to feeling or to work as they should, they lack readiness to sacrifice their individual rights for the sake of the corporate good, they do not bid the right welcome to the other man’s soul. But they are on the side of life, they love justice, they hate violence, and they respect the truth. It is not always so when they deal with India or Burma; but that is not their fault, it is the fault of Empire, which makes a man own things outside his power to control. But among themselves, in dealing with things within their reach, they have learned some part of the Christian lesson that it is our disposition to crucify what is good, and that we must therefore circumvent our barbarity. This measure of wisdom makes it right that my civilization should not perish.
It is impossible not to think of George Orwell’s “The Lion and the Unicorn,” perhaps the only other example of such ambivalent yet affirming patriotism under existential threat:
Yes, there is something distinctive and recognizable in English civilization. It is a culture of the individual as that of Spain. It is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes. It has a flavour of its own. Moreover it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature. What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photography young mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing except that you happen to be the same person.
And above all, it is your civilization, it is you.
With this on her mind the dark monition follows her. In a restaurant Constantine stares down a group of “eight people, four men in open shirts and leather shorts, four women in dirndlish cotton dresses, all very fair and much overweight.” She remarks that they seem harmless enough. Constantine puts that notion down by idenitifying one of the men as “the chief German agent in Yugoslavia.”
It is possible that this German agent was Wilhelm Höttl, an SS intelligence officer. He fits the profile and West’s corpulent description in 1937. A doctor of history and a specialist on southeastern Europe, he joined the Nazi party and then held the position as head of intelligence for the region. Höttl had a working relationship with Adolph Eichmann and gave testimony for the prosecution in Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem (he even appears in Hannah Arendt’s report on the banality of evil). He is identified by several historical authorities (and some Holocaust deniers) as the first reference to the six million deaths of European Jews during the war. Höttl played a weak hand well after the German defeat, surrendering to the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency) in Switzerland and parlaying that into employment with U.S. Army intelligence.
The party stumbles across another German, whom Constantine identifies as the government minister in Tirana. This was likely Eberhard von Pannwitz who at that moment served as the German ambassador to Albania in Tirana in 1937. A career diplomat from a noble family, Von Pannwitz was captured after the German surrender and died in U.S. custody in December 1945. His son, like Eichmann, emigrated to Argentina.
The last paragraph of this chapter ends the book’s main narrative on a note that would seem hysterical only if everything that followed West’s visit did not in reality occur. In retrospect it sounds like a cry of alarm, like an air raid siren. Constantine and the local official notice several foreign automobile makes parked near the town center; each one is driven by foreign diplomats posted to Albania. They are immediately alarmed: the diplomats would only be here, in Montenegro, if they had to communicate with their capitals in a way the Albanians could not overhear or intercept. Constantine flags down another acquaintance, hailing him in Greek, for the story. He returns with this upsetting news:
“It is very bad. It is a massacre. The officials all are bought by Italian money and they have taken the four hundred young men who were most likely to give Italy trouble when she takes the country, and they have pretended it is a Communist rising, and they have killed them all. It is all nasty, so nasty, and it will not stop until the end.”
Constantine is clairvoyant if not precisely correct. A quasi-colonial power, Italy installed and propped up Albania’s King Zog and would invade Albania in 1939 less than two years later and one month before sealing the Pact of Steel with Germany. Two years after that Germany would invade Yugoslavia itself. Constantine very likely describes a real political crisis in Albania. On May 16, 1937, The New York Times reported “Revolt Flares in Albania, Town is Captured; Enemies of King Act on Unveiling of Women” in the town of Agyrokastron (today Gjirokastër).
Constantine accurately notes that the Albanian rebels, led by former Interior Minister Ethem Toto, are deemed communists by the government. (The Times insists on characterizing the revolt as inspired by Islamic mores and this appears to be true.) It was likely not the massacre Constantine described, but it was violent enough. Toto was “tracked down and shot”; six others were reported killed and 150 rebels captured. (Zog, for his part, survived more than 50 assassination attempts.) With the clear intrigue West documents, it is understandable that Constantine should be so distraught.
One of the last activities West and her party enjoy is a long-delayed dip in the Adriatic. She describes this experience as the pure essence of physical pleasure. “[T]he water was hardly water, being fused with sunshine,” she writes. “It worked its progressive magic on us, delighting the skin, then the blood, then the muscles.”
Just to be alive is good.
It is impossible to hold this image in mind without its antipode, the cataclysm to follow. This moment on the shore seems to be West’s argument in miniature. A glimpse of the sea and the feeling of water are pure affirmation of life’s promise that is threatened by millions of human beings driven by a corrupt nihilist desire for domination and destruction. That is what follows. West knows this, writing in 1941. But it is not simple retrospect. It is true. In just four years everything she has seen on her journey from London to the Adriatic will be plowed under. All of this as it was will be gone.
I saw before me what an empire which spreads beyond its legitimate boundaries must do to its subjects. It cannot spread its own life over the conquered areas, for life cannot travel too far from its sources, and it blights the life that is native to those parts.
OLD SERBIA IS what we now call Kosovo, a partially recognized sovereign state that emerged following the 1999 NATO war with the federal Yugoslavia over ethnic cleaning in the formerly autonomous province. Kosovo is a toponym derived from the 1389 Battle of Kosovo. The battle figures prominently in West’s narrative as well as the history of Serbia and Yugoslavia. In the Kosovo Polje, or Field of Blackbirds, the Ottoman army destroyed the Serbian defense, solidifying Turkish control over the Balkans for the next 500 years. The blackbirds described are the carrion birds that descended on the dead. Later, in a foreshadowing of Flanders Fields, legend tells that the field erupted in red peonies the following spring, the blood of the Serbian martyrs.
In the early 16th century Muslim Albanians began to migrate to Kosovo. Today, Albanians almost entirely populate this cradle of the Serbian nation. In 1989, on the six hundredth anniversary of the battle, communist apparatchik Slobodan Milošević gave his infamous speech inciting the Serbian audience. Standing at the rebuilt monument of Gazimestan, which West also visited, he used the heroic narrative to define his nationalist agenda that perpetuated war, massacre, and genocide across the former Yugoslavia for the next 20 years.
West tours the field, which like a medieval Gettysburg is scattered with various semi-monuments erected in memory of the dead. Close by is a genuine treasure: the frescoes of Gračanica, the first Serbian Orthodox monastery she visits in Kosovo. The Serbian monasteries West visits at Peć and Dečani are rightfully famous landmarks. Most of them today are restored and preserved under the UN’s designation as World Heritage Sites.
West is genuinely enraptured by the devotional art here and she takes time to examine, deconstruct, and contextualize the frescoes painted centuries earlier. She finds here a more experiential piety, immediate and deeply felt. She intuits an uncanny communication between centuries: the expressionism on display in Gračanica from 1325 is painted in the same authentic, almost naive style as William Blake hones in the 1800s. The similarities are indeed so striking it is easy to confuse the two. There is no indication that Blake visited, saw, or even studied these obscure frescoes. The fact that they both seem to express in the same way suggests they have tapped into a deep and universal experience.
For West, that universal trait is a mysticism that separates east and west. “This is a study of what our people alone know,” Constantine observes. “This is mysticism without suffering.” West finds this refreshing. Instead of the half-mad mystic hermit of the Western church, who starves and thirsts himself in the desert for a chance at a vision of the truth, these Orthodox mystics are ascetic because what they think requires much more room than civilization can provide. “Life is not long enough for these men to enjoy the richness of their own perceptions, to transmute them into wisdom,” she concludes.
West revisits the Kosovo legend, about which the less said the better. She quotes extensively, and has been extensively quoted as quoting, the poem that forms the Serbian national ur-narrative. It describes the choice made by Prince Lazar as he assembled his forces against the invading Ottomans. The angel Elijah, in form of a grey falcon, visits Lazar on the eve of battle. The angel offers the prince a choice between the kingdom of heaven and a kingdom on earth. He chooses the former, after which his army is cut to pieces on Kosovo field. It is an ages-old example of the noble Lost Cause (in which case St. Jude should have appeared before Lazar), which is purer in defeat than in victory. Ignominy and slaughter are redeemed. From the defeat of the Confederacy to Germany’s stab in the back, from Custer’s Last Stand to the Mother of All Battles, stories of nobility and self-sacrifice redress ancient carnage and catastrophe. It is hard to imagine the grip of a 600 year-old legend on people in the 21st century, but there is much to echo William Faulkner here (“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”).
For West, Kosovo is even more sickening than her experience at the Sheep’s Field. Here the grey falcon is the bridgehead to the black lamb. It connects animal ritual sacrifice to actual human sacrifice. It is the terminus for humanity’s unconscious death wish. With a sardonic cut she writes, “So that was what happened, Lazar was a member of the Peace Pledge Union.” This pro-appeasement organization, as with its fellow neutralist, nativist, and fascist parties and clubs across North America and Europe between the world wars, is conveniently forgotten today.
“[W]hat the pacifist really wants is to be defeated,” West writes. She continues:
If it be a law that those who are born into the world with a preference for the agreeable over the disagreeable are born also with an impulse towards defeat, then the whole world is a vast Kosovo, an abominable blood-logged plain, where people who love go out to fight people who hate, and betray their cause to their enemies, so that loving is persecuted for immense tracts of history, far longer than its little periods of victory.
The rest of the trip alternates between mystical revery and pure annoyance. She makes an eccentric visit to the Stan Trg (an English typographical corruption of Stari Trg, “Old Mine”) mines at Trepča. These pits have been continuously mined for more than 2,000 years and today remain the largest producer of lead-zinc and silver ore in Europe. There she finds a Scotsman whom she calls Gospodin Mac, the mine’s general manager. The author Ian Hamilton has identified the Mac as A.S. Howie, a career employee of the Selection Trust, who died not long after the meeting West records. Not much more information is available about him, but West enjoys the company of her fellow countryman and his wife immeasurably.
The pitiful Constantine retreats into himself, hovering on the verge of nervous collapse as he tries to reconcile his wife’s animus toward him and his English friends. He comes off as brusque and smug, but West sympathetically sees right through him. “I paused, at a loss for words,” she writes. “I did not know how to say that he was dying of being a Jew in a world where there were certain ideas to which some new star was lending a strange strength.” This is both a terrifying portent of the Holocaust and the most succinct summary of dual consciousness that I have ever read.
There are two other long shadows of the war to come. First West and her husband encounter a strange man in a provincial café. The man approaches them speaking German while claiming to be Danish. But hearing the man speak Henry Andrews immediately determines, “That man has spoken Berliner German from his infancy.” Constantine concedes the fake Dane is likely a German agent, but they remain confused why he would be here, so far from any large city or capital.
Later, in Dečani, they are accosted by an irritating blond monk who brags he soon “will have the great honour of entertaining at Dečani Herr Hitler and Herr Göring!” (Hitler later pressured the Regent Prince Paul of Yugoslavia to join the Tripartite Pact. When Serbian officers ousted Paul in a coup and installed Peter II in 1941, Hitler declared Yugoslavia an enemy state and invaded. Nevertheless, I can find no indication that Hitler visited Yugoslavia prior to the occupation. Göring visited Ragusa, Croatia, in 1935.)
West laboriously relates the descent and fall of the Serbian empire and Byzantium to the Ottomans. A civil war among the descendants of King Milutin in the 1320s stalled Serbian plans to take Byzantium at Constantinople. An internecine power struggle between Milutin’s grandson Stefan Dušan and his father resulted in the father’s imprisonment and Dušan being crowned emperor. He proved an able leader and commander, initially offering his armies to Cantacuzenus, ruler of Byzantium, to fight his civil war. That offer just as quickly reversed and Dušan went on a campaign of conquest throughout the Balkans.
As a result of this reversal, Byzantium was suddenly extremely vulnerable. To shore up its defenses, Cantacuzenus allied with the Turks and ceded territory in Europe to them to repay debts. This placed the Ottomans in an opportune position to capitalize on Byzantium’s weakness coming out of its civil war. When Dušan suddenly died, he left a leadership vacuum and vast imperial possessions without defenses. The Ottomans then embarked on their conquest of the Balkans that included the Battle of Kosovo and the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. Ottoman Turkey soon consolidated rule over an empire spanning from Baku to Algiers and from Budapest to Aden.
This is an extensive narrative backdrop to the situation West finds in Old Serbia in the late 1930s. Dušan’s turn on Byzantium, she argues, sealed the fate of the Eastern Church and opened the door to 500 years of Turkish domination in southeastern Europe. West sees the lasting result in Old Serbia, which serves her argument about the destructive nature of empires. She sees in real time the consequences of centuries of conquest and subjugation. Her argument isn’t that the Ottomans Turkified or Islamized Kosovo so much as do almost the opposite: there is almost nothing left. In the place of what should be the Serbian national heartland, she sees instead an absence, a cultural void that follows colonization.
“Yet people here had once known all that we know, and more,” she writes, “but the knowledge had died after the death of Stephen Dušan, it had been slain on the field of Kosovo.”
NOTE: This article has been corrected to indicate that Hermann Göring visited Yugoslavia in 1935.
The argument here, in Sveti Naum, which has been recognized for a thousand years, is a persuasion towards sanity; a belief that life, painful as it is, is not too painful for the endurance of the mind, and it is indeed essentially delightful.
IF REBECCA WEST had a destination in mind during her travels through Yugoslavia, it would be Macedonia. It is “the most beautiful place in the world,” she explains, and the rite observed at the end of her visit is the climax of the entire narrative, the culmination of her voyage through time and space. Macedonia is where she wanted to go.
In Skopje West sees a city that no longer exists. By chance and by politics, in 1941 West may have recorded the last comprehensive narrative description of old Skopje. In 1963, a 6.1-magnitude earthquake completely leveled the city, spurring one of the first major humanitarian rescue efforts to follow World War II, with the United States and Soviet Union both contributing to recovery and relief. Unfortunately, the rebuilding of the city came under Marshal Josip Broz Tito and at the peak of the International Style, which meant that Skopje was rebuilt almost entirely in brutalist concrete.
Ironically, one of the buildings West found most atrocious in 1937, the Officers Club, partially survived the temblor. Her claws come out for this one while also being very funny: it is “one of the most hideous buildings in the whole of Europe,” she writes, made of “turnip-coloured cement, like a cross between a fish-kettle and a mausoleum, say the tomb of a very large cod.”
In 2012 Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski initiated a redesign of central Skopje that produced a Las Vegas kitsch classicism that looks like a reject bid for the makeover of Nur Sultan in Kazakhstan. The Skopje rebuild includes dozens of statutes of Macedonian national figures, including Alexander the Great on horseback; a pell-mell menagerie placed in every alcove and square inch of unoccupied space in the city center. But the Officers Club’s ruins have neither been torn down completely nor rebuilt.
West travels to Ohrid, close to the Albanian frontier. She visits the fabled Sveti Naum Monastery on the northwest bank of the lake. There is not much more than the natural environment to enjoy here, but that is quite the point: it ranks with most beautiful places in Europe. Lake Ohrid is one of the deepest and oldest on the continent; the Tahoe of the Balkans. The lake is an almost wholly contained ecosystem, with dozens of endemic species. West extols the excellent Ohrid trout, the belly scales of which the locals emulsify and shape into pearl-like jewelry.
West’s three visits to Yugoslavia each coincided with Easter. The beauty and ceremony of the Orthodox Christian rite capture something in her that she feels lacking in Western societies: magic. She moves from church to church describing the frescoes and intricately decorated iconostasis (a screen that separates the sanctuary from the altar in a church). She finds Slavic devotion intense, embodied, and sincere. Experiencing this faith is a driving motivation for her trip.
If this pilgrimage had a personality, it was Nikolai, the Orthodox Archbishop of Ohrid. She describes him:
He struck me now, as when I had seen him for the first time in the previous year, as the most remarkable human being I have ever met, not because he was wise or good, for I have still no idea to what degree he is either, but because he was the supreme magician.
Nikolai was a real person. Born Nicholas Velimirović, he was canonized by the Serbian Orthodox Church in 2003 and is considered by some as the greatest Serbian philosopher of modern times. His life was more complicated. He expressed right-wing, pro-German, and antisemitic opinions and policies. In 1926, he restored the German World War I memorial that West will soon visit near Bitolj.
But he was persecuted first by the Nazi occupiers and later by the post-war Communist government. The Germans arrested him and sacked his monastery at Žiča. In detention he was transferred to the death camp at Dachau which held political prisoners of the Reich. After liberation by the U.S. Army in Tyrol, Austria, he migrated to England. Considered a German collaborator by the victorious socialist government of Yugoslavia, he emigrated as a refugee to the United States where he taught until he died in 1956.
The pictures of Nikolai support West’s description of his spiritual presence and charisma. She describes him presiding over a meal, importing the spiritual and mystical transubstantiation of Christ in boiled eggs he passes out to the worshipers:
Bishop Nikolai stood up and cried, “Christ is Risen!” And they answered, “Indeed He is risen!” Three times he spoke and they answered, and then they stretched out their hands and he gave them eggs from a great bowl in front of him. This was pure magic. They cried out as if it were talismans and not eggs that they asked for; and the Bishop gave out the eggs with an air of generosity that was purely impersonal, as if he were the conduit for a force greater than himself. When there were no more eggs in the bowl the people wailed as if there were to be no more children born in the world, and when more eggs were found elsewhere on the table the exultation was as if there were to be no more death.
Of course the cretin Gerda disrupts this reverie by passing out eggs herself. The spell is broken, the magic dies. This mortifying faux pas does not seem to perturb her. Nikolai rescues the moment, briefly, by ministering to a blind beggar. Then Constantine commits a second gaucherie with a harangue. Nicholas, taking all he can stand, rallies the children in three cheers for the voluble Constantine before bolting from the table in a flurry of incense and robes.
On the road from Ohrid to Bitolj, the traveling party stops near the ruins of Heraclea Lyncestis, a fourth-century B.C. city founded by Philip II of Makedon himself. For me what follows is the most extraordinary passage in the entire book. West describes two women as they meet each other in a nearby Orthodox cemetery (likely the Assembly of the Holy Apostles):
I have a deep attachment to this cemetery, for it was here that I realized Macedonia to be the bridge between our age and the past. I saw a peasant woman sitting on a grave under the trees with a dish of wheat and milk on her lap, the sunlight dappling the white kerchief on her head. Another peasant woman came by, who must have been from another village, for her dress was different. I think they were total strangers. They greeted each other, and the woman with the dish held it out to the new-comer and gave her a spoon, and she took some sups of it. To me it was an enchantment; for when St Monica came to Milan over fifteen hundred years ago, to be with her gifted and difficult son, St Augustine, she went to eat her food on the Christian graves and was hurt because the sexton reproved her for offering sups to other people on the same errand, as she had been wont to do in Africa. That protocol-loving saint, Ambrose, had forbidden the practice because it was too like picnicking for his type of mind. To see these women gently munching to the glory of God was like finding that I could walk into the past as into another room. (My emphasis.)
Outside Bitolj the traveling party visits a German memorial to World War I. This is an eccentric stop but it serves her narrative for here is the final confrontation and break with Gerda. The memorial is a round rampart with a squat chapel at the tangent. West and her husband are appalled. It is not a cemetery. It contains no markings, no indication of the 3,500 individual German soldiers buried there, which lend the memorial its morbid appellation tottenborg. West’s husband, who lived and worked extensively in Germany, and was interred as an enemy national during World War I, finds the structure disrespectful to the memory of the dead. West sees in its hillside position, like a fortress or garrison, overlooking Bitolj a threat of a German return (which would indeed occur the year this book was published).
Gerda, however, is enraptured. She has never seen anything so magnificent. She demands the opinion of her English companions and appears to be genuinely hurt and insulted after she pries an unvarnished opinion from West’s husband. She makes a scene and vows to return to Belgrade, refusing to remain in the company of foreigners who clearly hate Germany and Germans.
West uses this otherwise negligible side stop — who goes out of their way to visit an obscure memorial of a sworn enemy in a foreign country? — to tee up a small set piece that follows as West’s husband attempts to understand and describe Gerda. This is an insightful, psychological précis of a certain type of mind and class. “Gerda has no sense of process,” he says. “She wants the result without doing any of the work that goes to make it.” This sounds like laziness, but it is quite more than that. It is a misunderstanding of life itself. In its fundamental miscomprehension of how the world works it encourages suspicion and resentment. If a person like Gerda cannot understand why another is rich or happily married, he implies, she is more likely to believe secret conspiracies, racialist plots, and subversion.
It is tempting to extend this examination to all Germans and all Germany at that time—and from there a description of all those in thrall to fascist or nationalist ideas throughout time. In my mind I immediately connect the misconception of “process” to the insane conspiratorialism that drove the January 6 Capitol insurrection. The attackers seem to have a juvenile understanding of political process, imagining the assault as if it were an adult game of capture the flag. The belief that disrupting a purely ceremonial process would reverse the result of a national election is like a child believing they can catch Santa Claus in the act. It has no bearing on or understanding of reality. The attackers had clearly never visited the Capitol, which is an open and public place. They believed that sacking the Senate would furnish evidence of sedition. They believed things that were not true because they did not understand how simple process works. They shared Gerda’s belief in demonstrative patriotism: that a public display of patriotic fervor, announcing alta voce that one is a patriot, flag-waving and flag-hugging, the internal conviction that one is a patriot and his enemies are traitors, were all per se the patriotic act rather than the symbolic or allegorical representation of patriotism, which is found in democratic process. But they, like Gerda, would like to be considered patriots without having to do the work that true patriots enact without complaint.
The narrative climax comes at the end of the chapter on St. George’s Eve. St. George is not well known in modern America because St. George is an Anglican and Orthodox icon with little purchase in mainstream American Protestantism. (See Expedition.) St. George’s standard, the red cross on a white field, forms the national emblem of England. Its apotheosis is in the flag of Georgia. St. George was the original hero who rescued the damsel from the dragon, another threat of virgin sacrifice. In the former Yugoslavia St. George’s Eve is called Đurđevdan, and it is marked by Christians, Romani, and Muslims alike.
Here West observes the fertility rite of the Sheep’s Field (Oveche Polje) near Veles. There stands a large flat rock where families sacrifice animals to cure barrenness. West finds the site covered in blood, viscera, and the bodies of sacrificed animals. She is revolted and not just by the carnage. Her reaction is strong and requires close examination: this is the apex of her argument, the closest to the theme of the book. The entire narrative has been driving to this point. This is the Black Lamb of the title.
In her disgust, she attributes the same cruel, unnecessary, and futile death and sacrifice seen at the rock to the larger notion “that Western thought is founded on this repulsive pretense that pain is the proper price of any good thing.” The expulsion from the Garden to Abraham’s willing sacrifice of Isaac, from the crucifixion of Jesus to the first Christian martyrs, from the death of St. George to the Crusades against Jerusalem, all that is considered holy and good in the Western Christian tradition are made that way through pain, exile, violence, and death.
A thousand generations have sacrificed animals on this rock in a rite that includes all – Muslims, Roma, Christians – in its promise of fertility. While it is easy to dismiss West’s harsh sentence of this site as the hyper-sensitivity of a germ-phobic foreigner, a closer examination of the rite supports its strangeness. The rock is filthy, matted brown from constant blood-letting that is left to coagulate and dry out where it falls. It stinks. Animal parts and carcasses attract flies in the sun. It is the very picture of bestial horror. And it is therefore supremely strange given the faith traditions that participate in the rite.
Muslims are well-known for their ritual sacrifice, particularly during Eid Al Adha. That marks the day God spared Isaac from death and Abraham sacrificed a ram in his son’s place. Muslims ritually slaughter lambs to mark al Adha. But Muslims are meticulous in their hygiene. They incorporate ritual ablutions before prayer. In ritual sacrifice and for human consumption animals are bled completely from the neck before being fully cooked. Blood per se is considered haram.
Christians sublimate sacrifice in their ritual Communion of bread and wine, but these are only symbolic acts invoking the death of Christ. The very literal sacrifice of animals for the purpose of worship has not been present since the earliest days of the faith, when Christians tried to distinguish their faith from Judaism. Jews, for their part, ended ritual animal sacrifice with the destruction of the Second Temple, substituting symbolic gifts made as offertories to God.
That leaves the Roma, known to West as gypsies, the itinerant population of south-eastern Europe. Despite pejorative stereotypes in European communities that attribute child abduction and sacrifice to the Roma community, they have no known tradition of ritual sacrifice not borrowed from host populations. The Roma migrated from northern India, where the rise of Hinduism ended ritual animal sacrifice.
Which leaves the ancient pagan or Roman practice of animal slaughter that has somehow preserved itself at this rock in Macedonia. This obscure and ancient rite supports West’s argument that ritual sacrifice manifests an instinctive, even genetic, death wish—an impulse toward self-destruction inherent to the human condition. “Only part of us is sane,” she writes:
only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations.
This is as good as any explanation for the human tendency toward self-immolation. It explains death cults, family annihilators, political violence, and suicide pacts. It explains hate crimes, serial killers, and active shooters. It explains the cynical nihilism of Nazism and its successors: hatred and violence stoking death and destruction for their own sake. Death comes for every man but often he appears all to willing to hasten the inevitable.
Feb. 24, 2022 update: This post has been updated with two photographs taken by Dragana Jurišić and first published in her book “YU: The Lost Country” in 2015. Photos are reproduced here with permission.
“In the colourless light descending its vaults there waited Constantine’s wife, Gerda, a stout middle-aged woman, typically German in appearance, with fair hair abundant but formless, and grey eyes so light and clear that they looked almost blind, vacant niches made to house enthusiasms.”
I VISITED BELGRADE in 2009, just a few years after Serbia had again reverted to its own republic following the independence of Montenegro. Joined until 2006, the two entities had made up what was left of Yugoslavia following the wars of succession in the 1990s and the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 following the NATO air campaign against ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. The evidence of that war was still manifest as I walked past mangled ministry buildings on the city’s main thoroughfare.
West does not spend much time describing the place. But she is evocative when she does. Initially Belgrade depresses her. “I felt a sudden abatement of my infatuation for Yugoslavia,” she writes. But her spirits are rescued by an extraordinary scene she witnesses in the hotel bar.
“[I]n none of those great cities have I seen hotel doors slowly swing open to admit, unhurried and at ease, a peasant holding a black lamb in his arms….He was a well-built young man with straight fair hair, high cheekbones, and a look of clear sight.”
This is the first reference to a black lamb in the book and while West here alludes to this encounter the titular animal actually follows later in the book. In the meantime, she marvels:
“He stood still as a Byzantine king in a fresco, while the black lamb twisted and writhed in the firm cradle of his arms, its eyes sometimes catching the light as it turned and shining like small luminous places.”
I strolled Kalemegdan park covering the historic battlements and a commanding promontory over the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. “Kalemegdan…is the special glory of Belgrade and indeed one of the most beautiful parks in the world,” West writes, accurately. She enjoys a stroll in the park, separated from the city bustle, passing “busts of the departed nearly great” as children play among the lilacs.
There is one peculiarity in the park, a sculpture by Ivan Meštrović whom West otherwise extols throughout her travels: the “Victor” war memorial. It is a statue of a naked male figure mounted high on a column at the prow facing the delta. West relates this is an awkward display. Too accurately male, Belgrade authorities felt its display would offend women if placed prominently at street level within the city. So it was located here in Kalemegdan where it is only slightly more appropriate, as the figure faces the direction from which so many have attempted to sack Belgrade over centuries. But that means the main public view of the statue from the park is the Victor’s ass.
West uses this view as a point of departure to explain, in often overpowering detail, the history of 19th Century Serbia. She illustrates this through the personal stories of two noble houses, cutthroat rivals for the crown of Serbia. For an observer from the 21st Century, these machinations of royal politics in the Balkans can appear tedious. And they are, at least in comparison to the sexualized violence of Game of Thrones or the exotic prize of Arrakis in Dune.
The Obrenović Dynasty ruled Serbia for most of the 19th century. Supported by the hated Austro-Hungarians, their rule came to an extremely violent end when Serbian nationalist officers, part of the secret Black Hand organization (led by Dragutin Dimitrijević, who would figure later in the assassination of Franz Ferdinand), murdered King Alexander I and his wife Queen Draga in her bedroom. They were shot and their bodies stripped, mutilated, and disemboweled before the conspirators threw them off a second-floor balcony. West recalls this horror early in the book as part of her early assessment of prior understanding of Yugoslavia.
Alexander was only 26 years when murdered. Draga had been his mother’s lady-in-waiting, 12 years his senior. Their marriage caused a scandal. Draga was widely hated. West documents ample fuel for the fire of public opinion, all of them quite beyond Draga’s control: she was older, a divorcée, sexually experienced, unattractive, and incapable of having children (likely because her groom was infertile).
This last fact is crucial to understanding their assassination. Because Draga had no children, Alexander had no heir to the throne. This set up a succession crisis with Alexander maneuvering his brother to assume power while the Serbian parliament positioned the Russian-backed House of Karađorđević to succeed the reviled Obrenovićs. Which is exactly what they did after the assassination, returning Peter Karađorđević to the throne 45 years after being deposed.
This history reads as a much more intimate and bloody history than anything shown in The Crown. Indeed, it makes for much more vivid storytelling than even the 1936 abdication crisis West had just observed. And the geopolitical stakes could not be higher, with every empire and major power in the region facing a loss or gain depending on the succession. More importantly, it positioned Serbia even more strongly against Austria-Hungary in the years leading to World War I.
History aside, in this chapter West introduces a character who will play foil to her Balkan reveries. As she arrives in Belgrade, in passing West introduces us to the antipole character in her narrative, the wife of Constantine, whom she calls Gerda. Their first meeting sets the tone for the rest of the narrative. West has a book under her arm that Gerda has no trouble judging by its cover. West finds this rejection out of hand to be baffling; Gerda doesn’t appear to evince even modest curiosity. She is too happily and self-righteously ensconced in the citadel of bourgeois ignorance. Gerda proves later to be a terrible traveling companion. Although West does capture Gerda in moments of content repose, a sliver of her humanity shining through dark clouds of prejudice and resentment, the overwhelming impression of Gerda is of a spiteful, sociopathic racialist and shrew. (Ironically, in response to her editor’s concern that Gerda is treated too harshly, West argued if anything else she had “toned down” her nemesis’ character.)
There was a larger personal dynamic at work in this awkward square dance. Constantine was indispensable to West as a guide, but given her experience with him (see Croatia, above) she deliberately traveled with her husband Henry Andrews to protect against Constantine’s predations. Constantine for himself appeared sincere in his affection, writing West a love letter in exquisite French. Every biographer of West writes that Gerda knew all too well her husband’s obsession for West and very likely elbowed her way into the traveling party to check him too. (West herself recalls their first meeting when Constantine calls home from his office: “Tell your mother that I will not be home to lunch because I have run away with an Englishwoman.”)
Gerda was Elsa Vinaver, born Elizabeta Silex in 1897 in Stettin, at the time a major port city for the German Empire, but today is now Szczecin in western Poland, on the Baltic Sea about two hours from Berlin. Her father was a Lutheran rector. She had a sister and two brothers, one of whom was named Karl Silex. West describes Karl in passing in her Collected Letters as a “Nazi journalist”. This is true as far as it goes. Karl Silex was indeed a journalist and the editor of the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung during the peak years of Nazi control (1933-1943) and after the war edited the Tagespiegel. He was a Rhodes Scholar, wrote in English, and while living abroad briefly married an Englishwoman. He wrote several books, including his memoirs.
He also served in both world wars with the Imperial German Navy and later the Kriegsmarine. During the waning days of World War II, he commanded a mine-laying ship attached to an unconventional “small unit” that fought in the North Sea. His ship appears to have participated in Operation Hannibal, the evacuation of German civilians and soldiers from East Prussia ahead of the Soviet Army advance in early 1945. He documented several attacks and sinkings of his flotilla but Silex himself survived the war.
This relationship provides some potential insight into Elsa’s character. West is unstinting in her disgust for her in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, and that hatred is carried over in her letters. She describes Elsa as “mad,” having attempted suicide and infanticide and reports that she had been committed to asylum at least twice. “The Nazi business has made her madder,” West writes her husband. Elsa is horrified that she had married a Jew and had “polluted the sacred Nordic blood” by having two sons with Vinaver (the youngest of whom is named, not coincidentally, Konstantin).
While publicly available information suggests Silex resisted Nazi propaganda during the war — he was a member of the Fuhrer Council of the German Press but never joined the party — the truth is he served the regime both in and out of uniform. Knowing that her more prominent brother was serving the Fatherland may have been an aggravating factor in Elsa’s state of mind.
There is an extraordinary story buried below the few details about Elsa that we have. West and her husband offered asylum to Vinaver during the war but as a Yugoslav patriot he remained and served in the army opposing the German invasion in 1941. He was almost immediately captured and spent the remainder of the occupation in a prisoner of war camp. He managed to hide his Jewish origins which very likely saved his life. That was not the fate of his mother, who perished in the notorious Banjica concentration camp near Belgrade. It is all the more moving knowing her fate today, information that wasn’t available to West when she recorded their meeting.
It is impossible to ignore the contradictions involved in this family. Elsa apparently remained in Yugoslavia during the war even while her husband was imprisoned and her mother-in-law was murdered. It is not known what she thought of the German occupation. Information in English is scarce but it appears that the Vinaver marriage survived the war, as evidenced by a picture of Elsa and Stanislav taken with their youngest son soon afterwards (see above).
Stanislav died in 1955. Elsa outlived her husband by nearly 25 years. It appears she never left Yugoslavia and died in Belgrade in 1979. Perhaps the most extraordinary result of this union is the family burial of the Jewish Vinavers, Stanislav and Elsa, and their son Konstantin, who died in 2000, together in a Christian grave in the cemetery of Serbian heroes in Belgrade.
The extended family of the Silexes and Vinavers spanned the extreme experience of the war, from the Holocaust and occupation to national service, resistance and imprisonment. It remains an untold story of epic proportions.
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.
“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.
“And the death of Elizabeth had shown me the scourge of the world after the war, Luccheni, Fascism, the rule of the dispossessed class that claims its rights and cannot conceive them save in terms of empty violence, of killing, taking, suppressing.” (Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)
REBECCA WEST BEGINS her book and her journey justifying this eccentric visit to her husband, Henry Andrews, who she discovers is already asleep in the neighboring wagon-lit. It is spring 1937. Alone with her thoughts, she recalls “the first time I ever spoke the name ‘Yugoslavia’ and that was only two and a half years before, on October the ninth, 1934.”
At that time she was recovering from surgery in a London hospital. By chance she learns from a radio broadcast that King Alexander I of Yugoslavia was assassinated while on a state visit to Marseilles. As the king left the quai, the killer approached Alexander’s car and shot him four times with a semi-automatic pistol. The fatal round pierced the king’s torso. The French Foreign Minister, Louis Bartou, who had accompanied the king, picked up a ricochet and later died in hospital. The assassin, a Bulgarian revolutionary named Vlado Chernozemski, was cut down by a French gendarme and beaten to death by the crowd in the street. Several others were wounded in the ensuing pandemonium. It was the first assassination captured in motion pictures:
This jolts West’s memory of another Balkan assassination, that of Austrian Empress Elizabeth, in 1898, when West was a girl. Then 60 years old, Elizabeth was traveling incognito in Geneva, Switzerland, when her hotel tipped off a newspaper to her presence. An Italian, Luigi Lucheni, was in town planning to kill Prince Philippe, Duke of Orleans, the pretender to the French crown, who had not actually come to Geneva. Instead he attacked Elizabeth, who was with her lady-in-waiting and preparing to embark on a boat at the lakeside. Lucheni stabbed Elizabeth in the chest with a sharpened file and ran off. Elizabeth, who initially thought she had merely been knocked down, boarded the lake boat. Her tightly corseted dress slowed and hid but did not stop the internal hemorrhage. She collapsed on the boat and died shortly afterwards.
Both crowns were important figures in their day and both assassins represented revolutionary movements au courant at the time. Elizabeth was noted for her intelligence and beauty and whose death was mourned in ways similar to the death of Diana Spencer in 1997. Her assassin was an anarchist, an ideology that drew as much alarm at the fin de siècle as the self-styled revolutionaries of the Red Army Faction and the Symbionese Liberation Army in the 1970s. Alexander, descended from rootless Serbian aristocracy, had been king of Yugoslavia for barely five years. He became a target of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization. If this appears confusing because Chernozemski was Bulgarian, it won’t be the last time. Chernozemski remains a controversial figure in both Bulgaria and Macedonia.
To an observer in the 21st Century, these events appear obscure, their connections vague. What could possibly link a stabbing in 1898 Geneva and a shooting in 1934 Marseilles? They were, in fact, singular moments in the advance of the most disruptive political movement in European history: the abandonment of hereditary monarchy as a system of rule and government in favor of republicanism and democratic parliaments. World War I accelerated this collapse by breaking up the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires. World War II liberated nations, moved borders, and fatally weakened the remaining empires of France, the United Kingdom, and Japan. Most importantly, the war smashed the last vestige of ruling monarchies in Europe. The only royalty to survive 1945 retained ceremonial titles only. They were eliminated entirely in eastern Europe. In Western Europe, parliaments and ministers ruled. The war finished what a long string of assassinations had started. In the late 1930s, with the second war not yet in prospect, West was reaching back to understand what would happen to her, her country, and Europe in the coming years.
To West, the revolutionaries, national movements, and assassins demonstrated not a violence unique to this small corner of the world (“Violence was, indeed, all I knew of the Balkans,” she admits) but the ruin and misery empires impose while dominating subject nations. She is keen enough to foresee that the cruelty loosened by empire and exacerbated by the unaccountable political organizations that opposed them seeded the ground for state terror and fascism. “Luccheni has got on well in the world,” she writes. “But now Luccheni is Mussolini.” Lucheni, a bastard abandoned as an infant and raised in orphanages and foster homes, took out his individual rage on the political system. But this did not make it legitimate:
His offense is that he made himself dictator without binding himself by any of the contractual obligations which civilized man has imposed on his rulers in all creditable phases…. This cancellation of process in government leaves it an empty violence that must perpetually and at any cost outdo itself, for it has no alternative idea and hence no alternative activity.
In addition to a mordant summation of fascism’s appeal and agenda, West demonstrates a much more sophisticated historical understanding of actual events than she is normally given credit for. The original sin, in her mind, was European imperialism that sought to divide and conquer, setting the weak off against one another rather than Rome. That Cain slew Abel was its logical, if not inevitable, result.