I hate the corpses of empires, they stink as nothing else. They stink so badly that I cannot believe that even in life they were healthy.
AS I WRITE this the first diplomatic talks between Russia and Ukraine to resolve the armed conflict between the two countries have ended. The world has witnessed the most grotesque violation of the international order since the end of World War II. The consequences of Russia’s attack on its neighbor will run far. So it is as I finish reading Black Lamb and Grey Falcon that I feel a temporal kinship with Rebecca West. She wrote her book during the five years following the Anschluss, Munich, the bisection of Poland, and the invasion of France, the Low Countries, and Norway to the moment that Britain stood alone against Germany. She published this book in 1941, not long after the Battle of Britain and the German invasion of Yugoslavia.
If anyone was paying attention, and West was paying attention, the expected and inevitable conclusion to her narrative was clear to see for many years. It is the same for this moment. Vladimir Putin’s behavior over the last 20 years has clearly led us here. A fetid campaign of assassinations, false flags, cynical disinformation, wanton destruction, harassment and suppression, assault and annexation – with hardly any response from the civilized world – made him feel invincible. Until this moment.
It is the spirit of the Ukrainian resistance that feels so familiar to this book. “Often, when I have thought of invasion, or when a bomb has dropped nearby, I have prayed, ‘Let me behave like a Serb,’” West writes in her epilogue. The history of Yugoslavia coincides with the legitimate national aspirations of the post-Soviet states in their insistence: We exist. We don’t have to justify who we are. We have value. We have a right and duty to defend who we are against imperial, denuding, conforming power. That threat is as clear today as it was in 1941. This time, the diminutive corporal cosplaying Charlemagne is a diminutive ex-KGB apparatchik styling himself after Peter the Great as he attempts to reestablish the Russian Empire by force.
It is easy to apply prescience and order to a narrative that is written in retrospect. Europe was a very different place in 1937 compared to 1941, obviously, and nobody could have predicted the future even from West’s original vantage point in Yugoslavia. In 1980 West admitted in a letter to her lawyer that the UK’s Ministry of Information suggested that she write the Epilogue. This led to criticism late in her life that Black Lamb and Grey Falcon was written as a vehicle for wartime propaganda. I hope I have argued convincingly that cannot be the case. The book’s elephantine volume and complexity should be evidence enough. In any event, West viewed the Epilogue as the book’s “best part,” which, given all that preceded it, is a significant evaluation. The book is a sprawling argument against war and empire. She specifically links the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 to the threat to Europe in 1939. To her Ottoman Turkey and Nazi Germany are avatars of the same human bent toward violence and subjugation. That reincarnation in Russian aggression today is just as clear.
The contemporary relevance of West’s argument doesn’t need to rest on current events. Her point is eternal. Reaching back to her experience on Kosovo Field, where the Ottomans didn’t so much Turkify Serbia but simply ruin it, she imagines somebody visiting a deracinated, once-German-occupied England 500 years in the future:
Defeat, moreover, must mean to England the same squalor that it had meant to Serbia. Five centuries hence gentleness would be forgotten by our people; loutish men would bind ploughshares to their women’s backs and walk beside them unashamed, we would grow careless of our dung, ornament, and the use of foreign tongues and the discoveries made by the past genius of our race would be phantoms that sometimes troubled the memory; and over the land would lie the foul jetsam left by the receding tide of a conquering race. In a Denkmal erected to a German aviator the descendant of his sergeant in the sixteenth generation, a wasted man called Hans with folds of skin instead of rolls of fat at the back of his neck, would show a coffin under a rotting swastika flag, and would praise the dead in a set, half-comprehended speech, and point at faded photographs on the peeling wall, naming the thin one Göring and the fat one Goebbels; and about the tomb of a murdered Gauleiter women wearing lank blonde plaits, listless with the lack of possessions, would picnic among the long grasses in some last recollection of the Strength Through Joy movement, and their men would raise flimsy arms in the Hitler salute, should a tourist come by, otherwise saving the effort.
West has been changed by her journey. She catalogues the melancholy and nostalgia of ending a holiday only to return to a grim, lived-in reality. She and her husband travel from Kotor to Dubrovnik by boat and then Zagreb by train, stopping for a few days in the Plivitse Lakes. On the way they meet friends who are astonished by their eccentric travel in Yugoslavia. These same people profess support for Naziism as a viable alternative to Communism, if they hold political opinions at all; they inhabit a state of pure ignorance about what will soon come.
West and her husband encounter a demonstration by Croat students protesting the death of their comrades at the hands of Serb gendarmes. Twice this situation is described to them, in “the same complaining and exultant whine,” the strange timbre of the publicly aggrieved. That could easily describe Hitler’s mode of public speech. This “peculiar whining tone” echoes loudly in Vladimir Putin’s louche desk harangues during which he eructs his bizarre and paranoid casus belli for invading Ukraine.
At home in London West meets a young graduate student writing her thesis about West’s work. This “golden-haired girl” from Vienna irritates West all the more because she is defiantly unread in English and French literature. This turns to bafflement when West learns the girl is Slav; the girl explains she was raised in Austria and proudly speaks no Serbo-Croatian. Austria has warped the girl’s ignorance into contempt. West is appalled. “Such is the influence that Central Europe exerts on its surroundings,” she writes. “It cut off this girl from pride in her own race….”
It’s important to note that West frames her entire narrative by the death of King Alexander I of Yugoslavia. What appeared at the beginning of this book to be a miniature of the Balkans in 1934 takes on much, much larger implications for Europe in 1941 and well beyond. In that sense the reader is changed by the journey from beginning, which recounts the murder of a forgotten European noble, to the end where Alexander’s assassination takes on much larger and coherent geopolitical import. It is a destabilizing act with historical consequences that are only obvious in hindsight, that is, during the London Blitz.
West’s very last words in the book reflect the hope that she felt seeing the stiff partisan resistance to the German assault of Yugoslavia. It rings in the ears like an echo of the future:
For the news that Hitler had been defied by Yugoslavia travelled like sunshine over the countries which he had devoured and humiliated, promising spring. In Marseille some people picked flowers from tehri gardens and others ordered wreaths from the florists, and they carried them down to the Cannebière. The police guessed what they meant to do, and would not let them go along the street. But there were trams passing by, and they boarded them. The tram-drivers drove very slowly, and the people were able to throw down their flowers on the spot where King Alexander of Yugoslavia had been killed.
The symbol of Ukrainian resistance today is the sunflower. It represents spring and renewal, an affirmation of life and its pleasures free from compulsion and oppression. It is the free choice of our earthly kingdom for the living relegating the kingdom of heaven for the dead. Rebecca West would have recognized this immediately. “That is what roses are like, that is how they smell,” she writes in the Epilogue.
We must remember that, down in the darkness.
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 whole of history since the ascension of Jesus into heaven is concerned with one work only: the building and perfecting of this “City of God.”St. Augustine
THE ONLY QUESTION in western political philosophy is how people live together. All forms of government seek to answer this question. We most often talk about this in terms of thesis and antithesis, examining the differences between republicanism and monarchy, democracy and autocracy, prime ministers and dictators, power and autonomy, pluralism and homogeneity. These oppositional dichotomies tend to dominate our understanding of politics and distract from the similarities they often share. I find it much more illuminating to compare like cases than unlike cases. Which brings us to the idea, and the problem, of Yugoslavia.
The idea of a political union of the western Balkans dates to the 17th century and took its modern form following the 1848 national revolutions in Europe. During World War I, politicians in exile in London formed the Yugoslav Committee to pursue the project. As the war ended and the Austro-Hungarian empire dissolved, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes arose more or less organically as the constituent states declared independence and pledged loyalty to the new kingdom to be led by Alexander I.
Yugoslavia was one of only two polities that lived and died in the 20th century. The Soviet Union was the other. Several imperial regimes collapsed as Yugoslavia rose, but most had existed for centuries, dominating the western Balkans during that time. Twentieth century Yugoslavia was created to solve a 19th century problem, which was domination and interference from more powerful neighbors, including Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Turkey, Italy, Russia, and Bulgaria. All southern Slavic populations experienced this but with very different effects and outcomes. After centuries of being divided and conquered, the historically Slavic states determined they were stronger united.
This was true as far as it went. While the western Balkans shared history, language (mostly; Macedonian is more related to Bulgarian and Albanian has no peer anywhere), and some beliefs, in reality Serbia with the largest population was the most dominant republic. So after resolving the problem of external domination, Yugoslavia next had to address the problem of Serbian domination of the union.
Following Alexander’s assassination, the kingdom was named Yugoslavia. Germany invaded in 1941, one of the most costly misadventures in the war. Soviet-supplied communist partisans led by Josip Broz, known as Tito, were the most successful guerilla outfit in Europe. Tito managed not only to bleed the Germans: he sidelined the Yugoslav government in exile, consolidated power, and won material from both the Allies and from Italian forces stranded in the Balkans after the capitulation.
As the war ended, Tito had a strong hand. He had won over or coopted every other major political or opposition group in the country. With this coalition, he held the first election after the war in 1945 and won a majority of seats in parliament. The parliament promptly removed Peter II (he refused to abdicate and died an alcoholic in Denver in 1970) and rewrote the constitution as a socialist republic with Tito as head of state. He remained in control for the next 35 years.
Tito proved adept at driving the middle ground between the Soviet Union and the Western democracies, playing them off one another to the country’s benefit. He dodged several Soviet assassination attempts and co-founded the Non-Aligned Movement. Yugoslavia had perhaps the most workable, purely socialist economy in Europe, with factory and farm collectives operating independently in a kind of managed competition. There were no immigration restrictions so Yugoslavs traveled freely. The country’s exports (including firearms and Fiat cars built under license by Zastava) permitted foreign imports as well. For my friends in Warsaw Pact countries during this time, Yugoslavia was a consumers’ paradise compared to home.
There are, of course, many arguments for why Yugoslavia fell apart. Tito, the strongman, died in 1980. The parliament then decentralized the government and economy to the constituent republics. This needless, inefficient multiplication of government functions helped stall the economy. By the early 1970s, 20 percent of the Yugoslav workforce was employed abroad. Following the oil shock, the Yugoslav economy began to fall apart. The dinar cratered and the government soon buried itself in foreign debt to prop up production.
Into this crisis and power vacuum stepped recently radicalized ex-communist apparatchiks like Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudjman. Milosevic, as nominal president of the federal Yugoslavia, first deployed the Serb-dominated national army to corral republics like Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia from seceding. When this failed, he unleashed his army and irregulars in the Bosnian Republika Srpska to absorb Serbian populations centers and cleanse Bosnian Muslims from their country. This resulted in the siege of Sarajevo and the genocide of Srebrenica that provoked first UN and eventually NATO intervention to halt the slaughter.
The war, it should be said, was not unique at the time. As the Soviet central government weakened, republican leaders like Boris Yeltsin seized power and legitimacy. With Mikhail Gorbachev deposed and the special committee dissolved in 1991, the 15 constituent republics of the Soviet Union realized their independence. That came not without bloodshed, including the prospect of a pitched battle in Moscow between rival Russian and Soviet authorities. Gorbachev warned he would not intervene in his eastern European client states but did not hesitate to crush national demonstrations in the Baltic republics. Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, and Moldova all engaged in civil war after independence. The object of this violence, as in Yugoslavia, was political control.
But neither was the war inevitable. It was not the fated result after centuries of smothered ethnic hatreds and foreign domination. Political power can be shared peacefully. War is always a choice. That is why the comparison of similarly structured states and governments are more worthwhile than pitting opposites against each other. For example, the similarities between Yugoslavia and Belgium are clear to see: a loose federation of three semi-autonomous regions, divided by language and (partially) religion, each triplicating government services. As unsatisfactory and inefficient as this system of government is, it is impossible to imagine Walloons, Flemish, and ostbelgien taking up arms to destroy the state.
What is left behind in the former Yugoslavia? As my friend Peter Korchnak has diligently documented, there is much to remember and a powerful nostalgia for that country pervades those who fled the war only to return to a landscape they could no longer recognize. Yugoslavia made sense of the complex intersection of language, faith, and ethnicity especially in mixed marriages (which depending on the census ranged from 10 percent to 30 percent of all couples). It stood as an example of united opposition to fascism and genocide. It rejected as false the dichotomy between liberalism and communism. It meant something.
Yugoslavia was, in short, an ideal – an e pluribus unum in the Balkans – whose death, like the threat to democracy we now face, feels like a betrayal.
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.
I am thrilled to be featured in the latest episode of the podcast Remembering Yugoslavia with Peter Korchnak about Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. You can listen here on wherever you get your favorite podcasts!