Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: Part V

Violence was indeed all I knew of the Balkans,' writes Rebecca West, 'all I knew of the South Slavs. And since there proceeds steadily from the southeastern corner of Europe a stream of events which are a danger to me, which indeed for years threatened my safety and deprived me forever of many benefits, that is to say I know nothing of my own destiny. The Balkan Peninsula was only two or three days distant, yet I had never troubled to go that short journey, which might explain to me how I shall die, and why.' So it was that in 1937 Rebecca West, with her husband, set out to explore the Balkans, and particularly Yugoslavia, to see for herself why the fate of the Continent and of England has so often been threatened by the Powderkeg of Europe. The story she brought back with her annihilates distance, and touches every thoughtful reader.

The chief problems of Yugoslavia were its poverty and the antagonisms felt by sections of the population that had different cultures. When lying Alexander had cleared up the arrears of work that could be settled by a firm and legible signature, he looked these problems in the face and made some gallant attempts.

To tackle the economic problem, he tried to develop the country's industries, but luck was against him, for the world slump began in the autumn of 1929. In any case Yugoslavia is primarily an agricultural country, and cannot know prosperity until an answer is found to man's world-wide refusal to pay a fair price for the food he eats. He also took steps to heal the antagonisms among his subjects, which showed him a very strange man, pedantic, doctrinaire, morally earnest, intellectually na&iumlve, and, at that moment, desperate and alone. The problem was enormously intricate. It sprang from the inclusion in the same state of two kinds of Slavs: Slavs who were the inheritors of the Byzantine tradition of culture and the primitive Christianity of the Orthodox Church, and had been informed with the tragic conception of life by the defeat of Kossovo and the ensuing five hundred years of slavery; and Slavs who had been incorporated in the Western bourgeois system by Austrian influence and who were spiritually governed by the Roman Catholic Church, which owes its tone to a Renaissance unknown to the other Slavs, and were experienced in discomfort but not in tragedy. To reconcile these two elements, the king enforced certain measures which bring tears to the eyes by their simplicity.

He changed the name of his state from the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes to Yugoslavia, the country of the South Slavs; and, forbidding the use of the old regional names such as Serbia, Bosnia, and the rest, he cut it up into nine provinces, called after the rivers which ran through them —except for Dalmatia, which was called the Littoral. He forbade the existence of the old regional political parties. It was a shameful thing that Serbia, with its glorious history of revolt against the Turks, should cease to be an entity, and that the Serbian regiments which had amazed the world by their heroism should have to send their colors to the museums and march under the new and as yet meaningless flag of Yugoslavia.

There is no doubt that at this time the king went too far in his desire to conciliate the Croats. He relaxed his devotion to the Orthodox Church, so that he should not seem too alien from his Roman Catholic subjects. He also took a step that was offensive not only to the Serbs bu to common sense when he tried to abolish the use of the Cyrillic script in the Serb districts and replace it with the Latin script used by the Croats and in Western Europe. This Cyrillic script has a great historical significance for the Serbs, for it is a mondification of the Greek alphabet made by Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius for the use of their converts when they came to evangelize the Slavs in the ninth century. But it is also much better suited to render the consonants peculiar to the Slav languages; it is the same script used by Serbia's neighbor, Bulgaria, and almost the same as that used in Russia, and it can be mastered by any intelligent person in a couple of days.

While these measures widened the gulf between the king and his Serb subjects, they did not bring him an inch nearer the Croats. It was then that Italy found an opportunity to get her foot into Croatia and play the same part there that she had played in Macedonia. She had an advantage in finding a willing ally in this enterprise in Hungary, which had lost Croatia and the rich Danubian territory of the Voivodina to Yugoslavia and looked for revenge; but otherwise the soil was more difficult. The Croats had practised a steady policy of resistance to Hungarian rule, but it was maily passive; and their rulers had not, like the Turks, accustomed them to the idea of murder. Hence the terrosrists hired by Italy and Hungary to organize a movement on IMRO lines had, at first, little success. Neither then nor later did they win over the main body of the Croat Peasant Party, or indeed of any Croat political party. It is said that after a year's work there were not more than thirty active adherents of the new organization; and though it established training camps in Italy and Hungary, these could not be filled. At enormous expense agents were sent everywhere that Croats were seeking their fortunes, —France, Belgium, South America, the United States, —to recruit them with cock-and-bull stories of how the serbs were massacring their brothers by the thousand. Even thgis was not too successful, and the Hungarian camp was driven to decoying Yugoslav peasants over the border and kidnapping them.

But the Croat terrorists had their successes. They were far from inefficient. They distributed treasonable newspapers and pamphlets all over the world, many of them persuasively written. They started an able and unscrupulous propoganda office in Vienna, which wounded the king's feelings bitterly and succeeded in poisoning European opinion; and they practised here, no less successfully than on the Bulgarian frontier, the art of placing bombs on international trains. This caused the Yugoslav Government endless trouble. It was usually foreigners who were injured, and that made trouble with their governments; and the foreigners who were not injured showed themselves curiously irritating in their reaction to the measures that were taken for their protection.

So the king dealt with Coratia by the light of his own wisdom, which proved insufficient. He could not send an army to deal with the unrest. It would have ruined the national prestige to admit the existence of civil war, and indeed the actual state of affairs was a good deal short of that. Many people traveled through Croatia at this time, without observing any disruption, and the bulk of the populace never ran any physical risks whatsoever. So to deal with the unrest the government sent Serbian or pro-Serb gendarmerie, who without any doubt treated the Croats with hideous brutality. There were many reasons for this.

It must be remembered that when they came to grips with the terrorists financed by Italy they were dealing with men who habitually practised mutilation and had been known to torture a man for three days before they killed him. Since a Serbian policeman in Croatia was faced with many different types of Croat dissident and usually had no means of distinguishing between them, it is not surprising that very often mild and inoffensive Liberals were subjected to treatment that would have been appropriate, and then only according to Mosaic law, when applied to professional assassins and torturers. There was also, as a disturbing factor, the appaling police tradition, which lingered in a form that was bad enough in all territories which had once been Hapsburg and in a far worse form in territories which had been Turkish. The police were regarded as a body that had to get results satisfactory to the supreme power in the state and had better not be questioned by lower powers on how it got those results, lest it should take a revenge. This encouraged a spirit of enterprise that was usually regrettable in its manifestations —notably regrettable in Croatia when the police themselves started murdering Croatian politicians whose absence they thought likely to facilitate their tasks.

It would be easy to exaggerate the extent of this situation. Atrocities did not happen everwhere or every day. But it was a detestable situation, and though the king did not hear the whole truth about it, owing to the independencc of the police, he heard at least enough to make him realize that the policy of suppression was a mistake and that he must make another attempt at a policy of reconciliation, since even if that failed it would smell better than the other.

Every independent thinker in Croatia was now anti-Serb, and had been thrown into the arms of the foreign terrorists. In September 1931, the king had the unhappy idea of proclaiming a new constitution w hich virtually annulled the principle of popular representation. A senate was established of eighty-seven members, no less than forty-one of whom were to be nominated by the king. Ministers were responsible to thc King and not to parliament, and were to be nominated by the king. The ballot was no longer secret and voluntary, but open and obligatory. With a free parliament thus abolished, and freedom of speech and freedom of the press long ago abolished, the Croats had to take what means they could to defend themselves by secrct arming and appeals to foreign opinion. This was precisely what Mussolini had designed, yet the king showed no signs of retractation. He had lost the Croats, and he had not kept the Serbs.

Yet the king was far more successful in settling his affairs abroad than at home. In the international sphere his na&iumlveté did not betray him but inspired him. It sent him forward to offer his hand to ancient enemies, whose surprise disarmed them, so that they found the friendliness in them awakening and answering. He laid the foundations of a most necessary structure, which might have subserved the peace not only of his people but of all Europe, when he repudiated the hostility between Bulgaria and Yugoslavia that had been encouraged by Russia and envenomed by King Ferdinand.

This reconciliation would not have been possible without King Alexander's eager acceptance of King Boris's advances. He did much to sweeten Bulgarian feeling by his visits to Sofia and Varna, which, indeed, were among the most fearless acts recorded of any sovereign. All the Balkan peoples like a man with courage. And when King Boris delayed giving proper diplomatic expression to the new friendship, owing to the influence of Italy on some Bulgarian politicians and the tropism of lifelong hatreds in others, King Alexander paid other visits that were designed to hurry him up. It was his aim to keep Italy at bay by uniting his neighbor states into a bloc resolved to keep the southeast of Europe inviolate.

His very first meeting with the King of Bulgaria showed a certain dimming of the monarchic tradition, a certain muting of martial music as it had been heard through history. It happened that in 1930 King Boris had married Princess Giovanna of Italy, who was cousin to King Alexander, as their mothers had been sister Princesses of Montenegro. The first meeting of the kings had to take place timidly, under the shelter of this cousinly relationship. It was represented that, on a return journey to Sofia from Paris and London, Queen Giovanna was overcome by her sense that blood was thicker than water and felt that she must see King Alexander. In response King Alexander came down to the railway station and drank cofee with them in a waiting room, specially decorated in the gloomy fashion habitual on such occasions, during the hour's halt the Orient Express always made at Belgrade. There had been some dealings between the two countries, but King Boris had not dared to make the more definite overtures which would have justified King Alexander's proposing a visit to the Palace. But once they were all standing on the platform, Queen Giovanna forced the diplomatic pace by kissing King Alexander as if she really meant it, putting her arms on his shoulders as if there were a strong goodwill between them all which might do great things for them if they let it. King Alexander was stirred out of his usual formality into responsiveness, and in the waiting room they talked and laughed together with the warmth of real loyalty.

But there was defiance in their laughter. This meeting sprang from the revolt of one of the Italian royal family against Mussolini. Three heirs to the blood of kings were conspiring, not without trepidation, to give the people peace in spite of a blacksmith's son.

There was a new factor, however, to confound all the certainties. There were two sorts of people. There was the people as it had been since the beginning of time, working in the villages, small towns, and capitals. But there was also a new people, begotten by the new towns which the industrial and financial developments of the nineteenth century had raised all over Europe —towns so vast and intricate that in coping with the problems of their own organization they lost all relationship to the country round them, so that even though they were called capitals they were not, for a head should have some connection with its body; towns planned in the biological interest of only the rich, and careless of the souls and bodies of the poor. The new sort of people had been defrauded of their racial tradition, they enjoyed no inheritance of wisdom; brought up without gardens, to work on machines, all but a few lacked the education which is given by craftsmanship: and they needed this wisdom and this education as never before, because they were living in conditions of unprecedented frustration and insecurity.

So among this new people, by a miracle that may be called grace, resist all these assaults on their stock, and are as the best of the old people. But there are those who succumb, never ripen and infantile, and so react to their frustration and neccesity, as infants react to hunger, by screaming and beating out at what is nearest. One such, named Lucheni, had killed Elizabeth of Austria in 1898. But this kind had grown in power since then. This is not to say that they had become wiser, or had discovered a formula that would medicine their distress; it was only that htere were more of them, and that, conscious of their numbers, they had learned to scream orders as well as complaints. So when King Alexander, having achieved the Balkan entente, visited France to discuss the new power's future relationship, he was struck down at Marseille not by a hungry vagrant, but by a ruler who was in a position to tyrannize over the royal blood of his country as he had tyrannized over its peasants and workmen. A form of government had arisen which was by far more disgusting than any of the governments of the immediate past, though they had been nasty enough. The Great Powers had perpetuated Balkan misery by the Treaty of Berlin. They had been resonsible for many ugly deaths in high places —Prince Michael of Serbia had been killed by an Austrian conspiracy; Queen Draga and King Alexander Obrenovich might have lived to old age had it not been for an Austrian intrigue; Franz Ferdinand and Sophie Chotek were doomed by Austrian maladministration. They had been responsible for many ugly births in low places: Lucheni and Mussolini would never have come to be in a just economic system. But at least they knew when they had sinned that there was sin, at least they were aware that there was good and there was evil. But this the new rulers of the world did not know. 'Violence,' said Mussolini in the unmistakeable accents of moral imbecility, 'is profoundly moral, more moral than compromises and transactions.' Time had rolled backward. It seemed likely that man was to lose his knowledge that it is wiser being good than bad, safer being meek than fierce, fitter being sane than mad. He was not only forgetting the Sermon on the Mount, he was forgetting what the Psalmist had known. And since these things are true it was certain that, once man had forgotten them, he would be obliged, with pains that must be immense, to rediscover them.

Belgrade, to tell the truth, is a mournful city. Even in spring, when the young lovers owalk among the flowers in Kalemegdan, and their elders sit in the restaurants talking politics with a new and rosy vehemence because their nostrils are filled with the savor of roasting lamb and piglet, its underlying mood is an autumnal doubtfulness. The winter is going to be very long and hard. Is it going to be worthwhile living through it for the sake of what lies beyond? And those who wonder are not ignorant of what winter is, nor are they cowards. This mood is one of the deep traces left on the capital by Alexander Karageorgevich's personality. It is still his city. If one of the medi&aeligval Serbians who painted the frescoes in the monasteries came to life and covered a wall with Belgrade, he would certainly show the murdered king floating on his bier above the city; and if the picture were to be a valid symbol it would show the king's tenacious and reserved face changed by doubtfulness, its reserve breaking to betray a doubt whether its tenacity had been of any avail.

Each Serbian ruler has proved something by his reign. More than once it was proved by this curious sovereignty, newer than the United States and as old as Byzantium, that a small state could defeat a vast empire; always it was proved that it is terrible, even in victory, to be a small state among great empires.

It was given to Alexander to give new proof of these arguments, and to prove others also. By the expansio of his state beyond the limits of his people's culture, Serbia had been forced into guilt. It was, evidently, a moral necessity that small peoples should form small states, and the price extracted for the defense of morality looked to be more than men's bodies can afford to pay. This the king had known well, as he drove stiffly through the streets of Belgrade. A dictator himself, he was the first ruler in Europe to learn what an enemy dictatorship must be to order. He knows it still better as he floats over the city on his bier. For his murder went virtually unpunished.

(The End)

Part One: January 1941
Part Two: February 1941
Part Three: March 1941
Part Four: April 1941
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