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.