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Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

December 1962

The Bridge Between East and West

A poet and dramatist who published his early work before World War I, Miroslav Krleza is the leading writer of Croatia and a man of enormous influence in the newly emerging Yugoslav literature; he is a close friend of Marshal Tito's and a connoisseur of modern art. In his offices in Zagreb, apart from his creative work, he is engaged in editing the most comprehensive series of encyclopedias ever published in central Europe.

by Miroslav Krleza


In humanity's past there have been wars which have played the role of historical locomotives of progress, but that an eventual Third World War, which threatens to destroy all that man has created as a witness to his wisdom and morals, would become a locomotive of death is beyond doubt.

Wars do not fall from heaven like the angels of the Apocalypse. Wars are stubborn and cruel earthly phenomena, and whoever wishes to understand them must, in the light of negative experience, attempt to explain them in an earthly manner. When we speak of an eventual Third World War, it follows as the normal consequence of the Second World War, just as the Second World War cannot be thought of apart from the First. Both world wars are connected by the iron logic of cause and effect.

The pacifist policy of coexistence among nations and governmental blocs, as preached by Yugoslavia, is an idealistic policy of compromise by which the coefficient of international danger which today exists among nations and states may be reduced to a minimum.

Whence comes the inspiration for the courageous initiative which a small and backward country like ours, until recently enslaved, has taken for its standard? The moral and political farsightedness which Yugoslavia, while resisting constant dangers, maintains as a beacon in its struggle for exalted international goals is actually the postulate of the negative and bloody experience of its history.

In the past, our country has never transgressed the simple moral principle that nations, whether great or small, should behave in international relations like decently brought-up, morally balanced individuals in human society who respect their neighbors as themselves.

That nations should preach the truth, that they should not challenge each other's freedom and elementary right of existence, that they should not threaten each other with weapons--these have been the principles which all the men of our country who are worthy of mention have preached in the past. That our country has behaved in this manner for centuries is proved by its own history, which is a dramatic struggle for the principle of freedom: freedom of nationality, of thought, of speech, of language, of moral conviction, and of artistic creation.

In the tragic struggle for our moral, intellectual, political, and artistic existence, we see one of the proofs of the force of our vitality. Today this is our only guarantee of existence.

Since the sixth and seventh centuries, our earliest days in the Balkans, many civilizations around us have disappeared into the darkness of history, while among western European and Mediterranean civilizations ours alone has remained Slavic. It is also the only one that is socialistic.

Contemporary Yugoslav socialism is today the dialectic result of a whole series of our medieval antecedents: the Old Slavic, the Glagolitic, and the struggles of Cyril and Methodius for equality of nationality and language in the Greek-Latin Church hierarchy of the ninth century. Our Bogomil (Manichaean) lay revolution, coming before Wycliffe, before Huss, and before Luther, was a forerunner, from the ninth to the middle of the fourteenth century, which bequeathed to posterity a rich native sculpture consisting of some thirty thousand sarcophagi now scattered about in the numberless necropolises of our republics. Our pre-Giotto painting, at the end of the thirteenth century, produced artistic creations which equal in value the masterpieces of the much later western European Renaissance. All our painters --the Byzantinnegianti, the pride of our trecento--were classical pilgrims of western European Renaissance painting, while our Latin Glagolitic priests of the eleventh century were schismatic contenders for the right of the people's language in the Latin Church, and as such the protagonists of the Orthodox Greek concessions to the Slavic lay masses.

Our medieval civilization was born as an antithesis of Byzantium and Rome, of European East and West, in a region where two autocratic powers, the Constantinopolitan Greek patriarchate and the Roman papacy, had clashed for centuries. Our cultural and political consciousness has never in its history been either Eastern or Western. Instead, it has formed a third component in the Eastern and Western spheres and has in the past been sufficiently strong to resist subordination to more highly civilized and stronger powers.

The way of life of our people down through the centuries is expressed in various assertions which date from the early Middle Ages and continue down to the present. We found ourselves to be Europeans, between East and West, connected with the East by our origins, language, and ethnic relations. Even during the Middle Ages our people refused to accept the western European pattern of life and thought, as is shown by the political genesis of our medieval sovereignty and the struggle for church independence in its Bogomil, Glagolitic, and Greek Orthodox variants. That our subsequent generations have resisted all domination of foreign ideas and forces in their political and cultural consciousness can be seen from the manner in which they founded their states, built their churches and cities, wrote, wove, or carved stone, read the Gospel in the language of the people, refused to accept foreign standards, and struggled for independence for centuries.

When we say that our country is a bridge between East and West, we state a tragic truth and one which describes the dominant feature in our history and the political and cultural formula of its present mission. We are an Adriatic and Mediterranean country, western European by tradition, where Latin was a living language until the revolution of 1848. But we have also been hypnotized by the century-old tradition of Slavic solidarity, by the cultural and national unity of all the Slavs with Russia, the dream of Orthodox Mother Moscow which we cherished for centuries. Those who understand our paradoxes will not be surprised to learn that after producing a rich literature on the national and linguistic unity of the Slavs (a well-known study of a minority at Hvar and the famous monograph of a Benedictine monk from Dubrovnik in the sixteenth century), a canon from Zagreb, Juraj Krizanic, a missionary of the Roman Propaganda Fide, traveled to Moscow in the middle of the seventeenth century as a Pan-Slavic ideologist, to outline to the czars the long-range political plans for the conquest of the Baltic, the Crimea, and Siberia--which only Peter the Great would realize.

In our present social structure we are a Communistic country, organized according to the idealistic principles of Lenin. In our political program we strive for total democracy and complete freedom of political thought of the western European type.

Today, when from the Chinese perspective we are again branded as the protagonists of western European revisionism, it must be understood that our nonconformity coincides, so to speak, with our historical tradition. For more than four hundred years, until the irruption of the Turks into Europe, our country was the refugium haereticorum, the "refuge of heretics"--the Manichaeans, the Cathari, and the Albigenses of western Europe, during the early days of the awakening of the lay elements in the Latin and Greek churches. Upon these elements were later built the moral and intellectual concepts of the modern world.

Someday, when the history of western European civilization is written, it will be recalled that two hundred years before the Reformation our country was the only nonconformist model for Lombardy, France, and Portugal in the bloody struggle against the supremacy of Constantinople and the Lateran and for the defense of those moral principles which are the glory of the Anglican schism.

Translated by Stanley Frye.


Copyright © 1962 by Miroslav Krleza. All rights reserved.
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