Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: Part I
In 1937, Rebecca West set out to see for herself why the "Powderkeg of Europe" had so often threatened the fate of the continent.
I raised myself on my elbow and called through the open door into the other wagon-lit: — ‘My dear, I know I have inconvenienced you terribly by making you take your holiday now, and I know you did not really want to come to Yugoslavia at all. But when you get there you will see why it was so important that we should make this journey, and that we should make it now, at Easter. It will all be quite clear, once we are in Yugoslavia.’
There was, however, no reply. My husband had gone to sleep. It was perhaps as well. I could not have gone on to justify my certainty that this train was taking us to a land where everything was comprehensible, where the mode of life was so honest that it put an end to perplexity. I lay back in the darkness and marveled that I should be feeling about Yugoslavia as if it were my mother country, for this was 1937, and I had never seen the place till 1936. Indeed, I could remember the first time I ever spoke the name ‘Yugoslavia,’ and that was only two and a half years before, on October 9, 1934.
It was in a London nursing home. I had had an operation, in the new miraculous way. One morning a nurse had come in and given me an injection, as gently as might be, and had made a little joke which was not very good but served its purpose of taking the chill off the difficult moment. Then I picked up my book and read that sonnet by Joachim du Bellay which begins: ‘Heureux qui, comme Ulysse, a fait un beau voyage.’ I said to myself, ‘That is one of the most beautiful poems in the world,’ and I rolled over in my bed, still thinking that it was one of the most beautiful poems in the world, and found that the electric light was burning and there was a new nurse standing at the end of my bed. Twelve hours had passed in that moment. They had taken me upstairs to a room far above the roofs of London, and had cut me about for three hours and a half, and had brought me down again, and now I was merely sleepy, and not at all sick, and still half-rooted in my pleasure in the poem, still listening to a voice speaking through the ages, with barest economy that somehow is the most lavish melody: ‘Et en quelle saison Revoiray-je le clos de ma pauvre maison, Qui m’est une province et beaucoup d’avantage?’
I had been told beforehand that it would all be quite easy, but before an operation the unconscious, which is really a shocking old fool, envisages surgery as it was in the Stone Age, and I had been very much afraid. I rebuked myself for not having observed that the universe was becoming beneficent at a great rate. But it was not yet wholly so. My operation wound left me an illusion that I had a load of ice strapped to my body. So, to distract me, I had a radio brought into my room, and for the first time I realized how uninteresting life could be and how perverse human appetite. After I had listened to some talks and variety programs I should not have been surprised to hear that there are householders who make arrangements with the local authorities not to empty their dustbins but to fill them. Nevertheless, there was always good music provided by some station or other at any time in the day, and I learned to swing like a trapeze artist from program to program in search of it.
But one evening I turned the wrong knob and found music of a kind other than I sought, the music that is above earth, that lives in the thunderclouds and rolls in human ears and sometimes deafens them without betraying the path of its melodic line. I heard the announcer relate how the King of Yugoslavia had been assassinated in the streets of Marseille that morning. We had passed into another phase of the mystery we are enacting here on earth, and I knew that it might be agonizing. The rags and tags of knowledge that we all have about us told me what foreign power had done this thing. It appeared to me inevitable that war must follow, and indeed it must have done, had not the Yugoslavian Government exercised an iron control on its population, then and thereafter, and abstained from the smallest provocative action against its enemies. That forbearance, which is one of the most extraordinary feats of statesmanship performed in post-war Europe, I could not be expected to foresee. So I rang for my nurse, and when she came I cried to her, ‘Switch on the telephone. I must speak to my husband at once. A most terrible thing has happened. The King of Yugoslavia has been assassinated.’ ‘Oh, dear!’ she replied. ‘Did you know him?’ ‘No,’ I said. ‘Then why,’ she asked, ‘do you think it’s so terrible?’
I said, ‘Well, you know, assassinations lead to other things.’ ‘Do they?’ she asked. ‘Do they not!’ I sighed, for when I came to look back on it my life has been punctuated by the slaughter of royalties, by the shouting of newsboys who have run down the streets to tell me that someone has used a lethal weapon to turn over a new leaf in the book of history. I remember, when I was five years old, looking upward at my mother and her cousin, who were standing side by side and looking down at a newspaper laid on a table in a circle of gaslight, the folds in their white pouched blouses and long black skirts kept as still by their consternation as if they were carved in stone.
‘There was the Empress Elizabeth of Austria,’ I said to the nurse thirty-six years later. ‘She was very beautiful, wasn't she?’ she asked. ‘One of the most beautiful women who ever lived,’ I said. ‘But wasn’t she mad?’ she asked. ‘Perhaps,’ I said, ‘perhaps, but only a little, and at the end. She was certainly brilliantly clever. Before she was thirty she had given proof of greatness.’ ‘How?’ she asked. To her increasing distress I told her, for I know quite a lot of Hapsburg history, until I saw how bored she was and let her go and leave me in darkness that was now patterned by the lovely triangle of Elizabeth’s face.
How great she was! In her early pictures she wears the same look of fiery sullenness we see in the young Napoleon; she knows that within her there is a spring of life, and she is afraid that the world will not let it flow forth and do its fructifying work. In her later pictures she wears a look that was never on the face of Napoleon. The world had not let the spring flow forth, and it had turned to bitterness. But she was not without achievements of the finest sort—of a sort, indeed, that Napoleon never equaled. When she was sixteen she came, a Wittelsbach from the country-bumpkin court of Munich, to marry the young Emperor of Austria and be the governing prisoner of the court of Vienna, which was the court of courts since the French Revolution had annulled the Tuileries and Versailles. The change would have made many women into nothing. But five years later she made a tour of Lombardy and Venetia at Franz Josef’s side which was in many ways a miracle. It was, in the first place, a miracle of courage, because he and his officials had made these provinces loathe them for their brutality and inefficiency. The young girl sat with unbowed head in theatres that became silent as the grave at her coming, that were black with mourning worn to insult her, and she walked unperturbed through streets that emptied before her as if she were the plague. But when she came face to face with any Italians there came to her always the right word and gesture by which she uncovered her nature and pleaded, ‘Look, I am the Empress, but I am not evil; forgive me and my husband and Austria for the evil we have done you. And let us love one another and work for peace between us.’
It was useless, of course. Her successes were immediately annulled by the arrests and floggings carried out by the Hapsburg officials. It was inevitable that the two provinces should be absorbed in the new Kingdom of Italy. But Elizabeth's sweetness had not been merely automatic; she had been thinking like a Liberal and like an Empress. She knew there was a real link between Austria and Hungary, and that it was being strained by misgovernment. So the next year she made a journey through Hungary, which was also a matter of courage, for it was almost as gravely disaffected as Lombardy and Venetia; and afterwards she learned Hungarian, though it is one of the most difficult of languages, cultivated the friendship of many important Hungarians, and acquainted herself with the nature of the concessions desired by Hungary. Her plans fell into abeyance when she parted from Franz Josef and traveled for five years. But in 1866 Austria was defeated by the Prussians, and she came back to console her husband, and then she induced him to create the Dual Monarchy and give autonomy to Hungary. It was by this device alone that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was able to survive into the twentieth century, and both the idea and the driving force behind the execution belonged to Elizabeth. That was statesmanship. Nothing of Napoleon’s making lasted so long, or was made so nobly.
Elizabeth should have gone on and medicined some of the other sores that were poisoning the Empire. She should have solved the problem of the Slav populations under Hapsburg rule. The Slavs were a people quarrelsome, courageous, artistic, intellectual, and profoundly perplexing to all other peoples; they came from Asia into the Balkan Peninsula and were Christianized by the Byzantine influence. Thereafter they founded violent and magnificent kingdoms of infinite promise in Bulgaria, Serbia, and Bosnia, but these were overthrown when the Turks invaded Europe in the fourteenth century and all were enslaved except the Slavs on the western borders of the Peninsula. These lived under the wing of the great powers, of Venice and Austria and Hungary, which was a doubtful privilege, since they were used as helots and as man power to be employed without thrift against the Turks.
Now all of these were under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Czechs and the Croats, and the Slovenes and the Slovaks and the Dalmatians; and they were alike treated oppressively, largely because the German-Austrians felt a violent instinctive loathing of all Slavs and particularly of the Czechs, whose great intelligence and ability made them dangerous competitors in the labor market. Moreover, Serbia and Bulgaria had thrown off the Turkish yoke during the nineteenth century and had established themselves as free states, and the reactionary parties in Austria and Hungary feared that if their Slav populations were given liberty they would seek union with Serbia under Russian protection. Therefore they harried the Slavs as much as they could, by all possible economic and social penalties, and tried with especial venom to destroy their languages, and created for themselves an increasing amount of internal disorder that all sane men saw carried a threat of disruption. It might have saved the Empire altogether, it might have averted the war of 1914, if Elizabeth had dealt with the Slavs as she dealt with the Hungarians. But after thirty she did no more work for the Empire.
Her work stopped because her marriage, which was the medium for her work, ceased to be tolerable. It appears probable, from the evidence we have, that Elizabeth could not reconcile herself to a certain paradox which often appears in the lives of very feminine women. She knew that certain virtues are understood to be desirable in women: beauty, tenderness, grace, house pride, the power to bear and rear children. She believed that she possessed some of these virtues and that her husband loved her for it. Indeed he seemed to have given definite proof that he loved her by marrying her against the will of his mother, the Archduchess Sophia. And Elizabeth thought that because he loved her he must be her friend. In that she was artless. Her husband, like many other human beings, was divided between the love of life and the love of death. His love of life made him love Elizabeth. His love of death made him love his abominable mother, and give her an authority over Elizabeth which she horribly misused.
The Archduchess Sophia is a figure of universal significance. She was the kind of woman whom men respect for no other reason than that she is lethal, whom a male committee will appoint to the post of hospital matron. She had none of the womanly virtues. Especially did she lack tenderness. There is no record of her ever having said a gentle word to the girl of sixteen whom her son brought home to endure this troublesome greatness, and she arranged for the Archbishop who performed their marriage ceremony to address an insulting homily to the bride, bidding her remember that she was a nobody who had been called to a great position, and try to do her best. In politics she was practised in every kind of folly that most affronted the girl’s instinctive wisdom. She was always thrusting the blunt muzzle of her stupidity into conclaves of state, treading down intelligent debate as a beast treads down the grass at a gate into mud, undermining the foundations of the Empire by insisting that everybody possible should be opposed and hurt. She was personally responsible for some very ugly persecutions: one of her victims was the peasant philosopher Konrad Deubler. She was also a great slut. She had done nothing to reform the mediaevalism of the Austrian Palaces, and she saw to it that the evil she did should live after her by snatching Elizabeth’s children away from her and allowing the Empress no part in their upbringing. One little girl died in her care, attended by a doctor whom Elizabeth thought old-fashioned and incompetent; and the unhappy character of the Crown Prince Rudolf, restless, undisciplined, tactless, and insatiable, bears witness to her ability to look after their minds.
After Franz Josef had lost Elizabeth by putting this inferior over her and proving that love is not necessarily kind he showed her endless kindness and indulgence, financing her wanderings and her castle-buildings with great good temper and receiving her gladly when she came home; and it seems she had no ill-feeling against him. She introduced the actress, Katherina Schratt, into his life very much as a woman might put flowers into a room she felt to be dreary. But she must have hated him as the Hapsburg of Hapsburgs, the centre of the imbecile system, when on January 30, 1889, Rudolf was found dead in his shooting box at Mayerling beside the body of a girl of seventeen named Marie Vetsera. This event still remains a mystery. Marie Vetsera had been his mistress for a year, and it is usually supposed that he and she had agreed to die together because Franz Josef had demanded they should part. But this is very hard to believe. Marie Vetsera was a very fat and plain little girl, bouncing with a vulgar ardor stimulated by improper French novels, which had already led her into an affair with an English officer in Egypt; and it seems unlikely that Rudolf, who was a man of many love affairs, should have thought her of supreme value after a year’s possession, particularly considering that he had spent the night before he went to Mayerling with an actress to whom he had long been attached. It would seem much more probable that he had taken his life or (which is possible if his farewell notes were forged) been murdered as a result of troubles arising from his political opinions.
Of these we know a great deal, because he wrote a great number of articles for anonymous publication in the Neues Wiener Tageblatt and an even greater number of letters to its editor, a gifted Jew named Moritz-Szeps. These show that he was a fervent Liberal and loathed the Hapsburg system. He also loathed the expanding militarism of Germany, and prophesied that a German alliance would mean the destruction of Austria, body and soul; and he revered France, with its deeply rooted culture and democratic tradition. He was enraged by anti-Semitism and wrote one of his most forcible articles against a gang of aristocrats who after a drunken orgy had gone round the Ghetto of Prague smashing windows, and had been let off scot-free by the police. He was scandalized by the corruption of the banks and law courts, and by the lack of integrity among high officials and politicians, and most of all by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. ‘As a simple onlooker,’ he wrote, ‘I am curious to know how such an old and tough organism as the Austrian Empire can last so long without cracking at the joints and breaking into pieces.’
Particularly was he eager to deal with the Slav problem, which had now grown even more complicated. Bosnia and Herzegovina had driven out the Turks and had been cheated out of the freedom they had fairly won by the Treaty of Berlin, which had given the Austro-Hungarian Empire the right to occupy and administer them. This had enraged the Slavs and given Serbia a grievance, so it was held by reactionaries to be all the more necessary to defend Austrian and Hungarian privileges. Rudolf had shown what he felt early in his career: when Franz Josef had appointed him colonel he had chosen to be attached to a Czech regiment with middle class officers which was then stationed in Prague.
Whatever the explanation of Mayerling, it must have raised Elizabeth’s impatience with Vienna to loathing. The situation was unmitigated waste and ruin. She had never achieved a happy relationship with her son, although there was a strong intellectual sympathy between them, because of the early alienating influence of the Archduchess Sophia; and the Hapsburgs had spoiled what they had not let her save. Rudolf had been forced for dynastic reasons into a marriage with a tedious Belgian princess, an acidulated child with golden hair, small eyes, and the conservative opinions one would expect from a very old man at the Metropolitan Carlton Club. She was literally a child; at the time of her wedding she had not yet shown the signs of womanhood. Owing to a slip in the enormously complicated domestic machinery of the Hapsburgs, she and her young bridegroom, who was only twenty-two, had been sent for their honeymoon to a remote castle which had been left servantless and unprepared. This ill-begun marriage had gone from bad to worse, and both husband and wife tortured and were tortured in turn.
But it was the Hapsburg situation, not merely the specific wrongs the Hapsburgs brought on Rudolf, that were his ruin. Chamberlains fussed, spies scribbled, the police bullied and nagged, everybody knew where everybody else was at every moment of the day, Franz Josef rose at four each morning and worked on official papers for twelve or fourteen hours; and not a minute's thought was given to correcting the evils that were undermining the foundations of the Empire. Rudolf, as any intelligent member of the family must have done, tried to remedy this. Either he made some too ambitious plan and was detected, and killed himself or was killed, or from discouragement he soused himself with brandy till it seemed proper to die for a plump little hoyden of sixteen. Now he lay dead, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire was without a direct or satisfactory heir.
Elizabeth lived nine years after her son’s death, as drearily as any other of the unemployed. Then, perhaps as a punishment for having turned her back on the Slav problem, the key to Eastern Europe, a Western problem slew her. For the newspaper my mother and her cousin spread in the gaslight was wrong when it said that the man who killed her, Lucheni, was a madman. It is true that he said that he had killed Elizabeth because he had vowed to kill the first royal person he could find, and that he had gone to Evian to stab the Duke of Orleans but had missed him and had come back to Geneva to get Elizabeth instead; and this is an insane avowal, for no benefit whatsoever could be derived by anybody from the death of either of these people. But, for all that, Lucheni was not mad. Many people are unable to say what they mean only because they have not been given an adequate vocabulary by their environment; and their apparently meaningless remarks may be inspired by a sane enough consciousness of real facts.
Lucheni performed his meaningless act out of his consciousness of what is perhaps the most real distress of our age. He was an Italian born in Paris of parents forced by their poverty to emigrate and trodden down into an alien criminal class: that is to say, he belonged to an urban population for which the existing forms of government made no provision, which wandered often workless and always traditionless, without power to control its destiny. It was indeed most appropriate that he should register his discontent by killing Elizabeth, for Vienna is the archetype of the great city which breeds such a population. Its luxury was financed by an exploited peasant class bled so white that it was ready to send its boys into the factories and the girls into service on any terms. The beggars in the streets of Vienna, which the innocent suppose were put there by the Treaty of Trianon, are descendants of an army as old as the nineteenth century. Lucheni said with his stiletto to the symbol of power, ‘Hey, what are you going to do with me?’ He made no suggestions, but cannot be blamed for it. It was the essence of his case against society that it had left him unfit to offer suggestions, unable to form thoughts or design actions other than the crudest and most violent. He lived many years in prison, almost until his like had found a vocabulary and a name for themselves and had astonished the world with the farce of Fascism.
So Elizabeth died, with a terrible ease. All her life her corsets had deformed and impeded her beautiful body, but they did not protect her from the assassin’s stiletto. That cut clean through to her heart.
After that, Austria became a quiet place in Western eyes. Proust has pointed out that if one goes on performing any action, however banal, long enough, it automatically becomes ‘wonderful’: a simple walk down a hundred yards of village street is ‘wonderful’ if it is made every Sunday by an old lady of ninety. Franz Josef had for so long risen from his camp bed at four o’clock in the morning and worked twelve or fourteen hours on his official papers that he was recognized as one of the most ‘wonderful’ of sovereigns, almost as ‘wonderful’ as Queen Victoria, though he had shown no signs of losing in age the obstinacy and lack of imagination that made him see it as his duty to preserve his court as a morgue of etiquette and his Empire as a top-heavy anachronism. He was certain of universal acclamation not only during his life but after his death, for it is the habit of the people, whenever an old man mismanages his business so that it falls to pieces as soon as he dies, to say, ‘Ah, So-and-so was wonderful! He kept things together so long as he was alive, and look what happens now he has gone!’
It was true that there was already shaping in his court a disaster that was to consume us all; but this did not appear to English eyes, largely because Austria was visited before the war only by our upper classes, who in no country noticed anything but horses, and Austrian horses were good.
The next time the red light of violence shone out it seemed of no importance, an irrelevant horror. When I was ten years old, on June 11, 1903, Alexander Obrenovich, King of Serbia, and his wife Draga were murdered in the Palace at Belgrade, and their naked bodies thrown out of their bedroom into the garden. The Queen’s two brothers and two Ministers were also killed. It was the work of a number of army officers, none of whom was then known outside Serbia, and the main characters were not interesting. Alexander was a flabby young man with pince-nez who had a taste for clumsy experiments in absolutism, and his wife—who strangely enough belonged to the same type as Marie Vetsera, though she had in her youth been far more beautiful—was understood to have the disadvantages of being disreputable, possessing an ambitious family, and lying under the suspicion of trying to palm off a borrowed baby as an heir to the throne.
There can be no question that these people were regarded with terrified apprehension by the Serbians, who had freed themselves from the Turk not a hundred years before and knew that their independence was perpetually threatened by the great powers. It lingered in the mind only because of its nightmare touches. The conspirators blew open the door of the palace with a dynamite cartridge which fused the electric lights, and they stumbled about blaspheming in the darkness, passing into a frenzy of cruelty that was half terror. The King and Queen hid in a secret cupboard in their bedroom for two hours, listening to the searchers grow cold, then warm, then cold again, then warm, and at last hot, and burning hot. The weakling King was hard to kill: when they threw him from the balcony they thought him doubly dead from bullet wounds and sword slashes, but the fingers of his right hand clasped the railing and had to be cut off before he fell to the ground, where the fingers of his left hand clutched the grass. Though it was June, rain fell on the naked bodies in the early morning as they lay among the flowers. The whole of Europe was revolted. Edward VII withdrew his Minister, and most of the great powers followed his example. That murder was just a half-tone square, dimly figured with horror, at the back of my mind: a Police News poster on the front page of a tabloid, seen years ago. But now I realize that when Alexander and Draga fell from that balcony the whole of the modern world fell with them. It took some time to reach the ground and break its neck, but its fall started then. For this is not a strictly moral universe, and it is not true that it is useless to kill a tyrant because a worse man takes his place. It has never been more effectively disproved than by the successor of Alexander Obrenovitch.
Peter Karageorgevich came to the throne under every possible disadvantage. He was close on sixty and had never seen Serbia since he left it with his exiled father at the age of fourteen; he had been brought up at Geneva under the influence of Swiss liberalism and had later become an officer in the French army; he had no experience of statecraft, and he was a man of modest and retiring personality and simple manners.
But Peter Karageorgevich was a great king. Slowly and soberly he proved himself one of the finest liberal statesmen in Europe, and later, in the Balkan Wars which drove the Turk out of Macedonia and Old Serbia, he proved himself a magnificent soldier. Never was there worse luck for Europe. Austria, with far more territory than she could properly administer, wanted more and had formed her Drang nach Osten, her ‘Hasten to the East’ policy. Now the formidable new military state of Serbia was in her way, and might even join with Russia to attack her. Now, too, all the Slav peoples of the Empire were seething with discontent because the free Serbians were doing so well, and the German-Austrians hated them more than ever. The situation had been further complicated since Rudolf’s day because the Empire had affronted Slav feeling by giving up the pretense that Bosnia and Herzegovina were provinces which it merely occupied and administered, and formally annexing them. This made many Slavs address appeals to Serbia, and she, as was natural in a young country, sometimes answered boastfully.
The situation was further complicated by the character of the man who had succeeded Rudolf as the heir to the Imperial Crown, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. This unlovable melancholic had upset all sections of the people by his proposals, drafted and expressed without the slightest trace of statesmanship, to make a tripartite monarchy of the Empire, by forming the Slavs into a separate kingdom. The reactionaries felt this was merely an expression of his bitter hostility towards the Emperor and his conservatism; the Slavs were unimpressed, and declared they would rather be free like Serbia. The Austrian Chief of General Staff, Conrad von Hotzendorf, was speaking for many of his countrymen and most of his class when he ceaselessly urged that a preventive war should be waged against Serbia before she got too strong. None of these things would have happened if Alexander Obrenovich had not been murdered and given place to a better man.
Then, on June 28, 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Government allowed Franz Ferdinand to go to Bosnia in his capacity of Inspector-General of the Army to conduct manoeuvres on the Serbian frontier. It was strange that he should wish to do this, and that they should allow him, for it was St. Vitus’s Day, the anniversary of the Battle of Kossovo in 1389, the defeat of the Serb provinces by the Turks which meant five hundred years of enslavement. That defeat had been wiped out in the Balkan War by the recapture of Kossovo, and it was not tactful to remind the Serbs that some of their people were still enslaved by a foreign power. But Franz Ferdinand had his wish and then paid a visit to Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, where the police gave him quite insufficient protection, though they had been warned that attempts were to be made on his life. A Bosnian Serb named Princip, who deeply resented Austro-Hungarian misrule, was able without any difficulty to shoot him as he drove along the street, and accidentally killed his wife as well. The Austro-Hungarian Empire used this as a pretext to declare war on Serbia. Other powers took sides, and the Great War started.
So, that evening in 1934, I lay in bed and looked at my radio fearfully, though it had nothing more to say that was relevant, and later, on the telephone, talked to my husband as one does in times of crisis if one is happily married, asking him questions which one knows quite well neither he nor anyone else can answer and deriving great comfort from what he says. I was really frightened, for all these earlier killings had either hastened doom towards me or prefigured it. If Rudolf had not died, he might have solved the Slav problem of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and restrained its imperialist ambition, and there might have been no war. If Alexander Obrenovich had not been killed, Serbia might never have been strong enough to excite the Empire’s jealousy and fear, and there might have been no war. The killing of Franz Ferdinand was war itself. And the death of Elizabeth had shown me the scourge of the world after the war—Lucheni, Fascism, the rule of the dispossessed class that claims its rights and cannot conceive them save in terms of empty violence, of killing, taking, suppressing.
And now there was another killing. Again it was in the southeast of Europe, where was the source of all the other deaths. That seemed to me strange, in 1934, because the Slav problem then seemed to have been satisfactorily settled by the war. The Czechs and the Slovaks had their pleasant democratic state, which was working well enough except for the complaints of the Sudeten Germans, who under the Hapsburgs had been pampered with privileges paid for by their Slav neighbors. The Slovenes and the Croats and the Dalmatians and the Montenegrins were now united in the kingdom of the South Slavs, which is what ‘Yugoslavia’ means; and though the Slovenes and Croats and Dalmatians were separated in spirit from the Serbs by their Catholicism, and the Montenegrins hankered after their lost independence, the State had seemed to be finding its balance. But here was another murder, another threat that man was going to deliver himself up to pain, was going to serve death instead of life.
A few days later my husband told me that he had seen a news film which had shown with extraordinary detail the actual death of the King of Yugoslavia, and as soon as I could leave the nursing home I went and saw it. I had to go to a private projection room, for by that time it had been withdrawn from the ordinary cinemas, and I took the opportunity to have it run over several times, while I peered at it like an old woman reading the tea leaves in her cup. First there was the Yugoslavian warship sliding into the harbor of Marseille, which I know very well. Behind it was that vast suspension bridge which always troubles me because it reminds me that in this mechanized age I am as little unable to understand my environment as any primitive woman who thinks that a waterfall is inhabited by a spirit, and indeed less so, for her opinion might, from a poetical point of view, be correct. I know enough to be aware that this bridge cannot have been spun by a vast steel spider out of its entrails, but no other explanation seems to me as plausible, and I have not the faintest notion of its use. But the man who comes down the gangway of the ship and travels on the tender to the quay, him I can understand, for he is something that is not new. Always the people have had the idea of the leader, and sometimes a man is born who embodies this idea.
His face is sucked too close to the bone by sickness to be tranquil or even handsome, and it would at any time have suggested a dry pedantry, unnatural in a man not far advanced in the forties. But he looks like a great man, which is not to say that he is a good man or a wise man, but that he has that historic quality which comes from intense concentration on an important subject. What he is thinking of is noble, to judge from the homage he pays it with his eyes, and it governs him entirely. He does not relapse into it when the other world fails to interest him; rather does he relapse into noticing what is about him when for a moment his interior communion fails him. But he is not abstracted; he is paying due respect to the meeting between France and Yugoslavia. Indeed he is bringing to the official occasion a naive earnestness. When Monsieur Barthou, the French Foreign Minister, comes and greets him, it is as if a jolly priest, fully at ease in his orders, stood before the altar beside a tortured mystical layman. Sometimes, too, he shows by a turn of the head, by a dilation of the pinched nostrils, that some delightful aspect of the scene has pleased him.
About all his reactions there is that jerky quickness which comes of long vigilance. It was natural. He had been a soldier from boyhood, and since the Great War he had perpetually been threatened with death from within, by tuberculosis, and with death from without, by assassination at the hand of Croats or Macedonians who wanted independence instead of union with Serbia. But it is not fear that is his preoccupation. That, certainly, is Yugoslavia.
Now King Alexander is driving down the familiar streets, curiously unguarded, in a curiously antique car. It can be seen from his attempt to make his stiff hand supple, from a careless flash of his careful black eyes, that he is taking the cheers of the crowd with a childish seriousness; it is touching, like a girl’s putting full faith in the compliments that are paid to her at a ball. Then his preoccupation veils his brows. He is thinking of Yugoslavia again. Then the camera leaves him. It recedes. The sound track records a change, a swelling astonishment, in the voice of the crowd. We see a man jumping on the footboard of the car, a gendarme swinging a sword, a revolver in the hand of another, a straw hat lying on the ground, a crowd that jumps up and down, up and down, smashing something flat with its arms, kicking something flat with its feet, till there is seen on the pavement a pulp covered with garments. A lad in a sweater dodges before his captors, his defiant face unmarked by fear, although his body expresses the very last extreme of fear by a creeping, writhing motion. A view of the whole street shows people dashed about as by a tangible wind of death.
The camera returns to the car and we see the King. He is lying almost flat on his back on the seat, and he is as I was after the anaesthetic. He does not know that anything has happened; he is still half-rooted in the pleasure of his own nostalgia. He might be asking, ‘Et en quelle saison Revoiray-je le clos de ma pauvre maison, Qui m’est une province et beaucoup d’avantage?’ It is certain that he is dying, because he is the centre of a miraculous manifestation which would not happen unless the living had been shocked out of their reserve by the presence of death. Innumerable hands are caressing him. Hands are coming from everywhere, over the back of the car, over the sides, through the windows, to caress the dying King, and they are supremely kind. They are far kinder than faces can be, for faces are Marthas burdened with many cares because of their close connection with the mind, but these hands express the mindless sympathy of living flesh for flesh that is about to die, the pure physical basis for pity. They are men’s hands, but they move tenderly as the hands of women fondling their babies; they stroke his cheek as if they were washing it with kindness. Suddenly his nostalgia goes from him. His pedantry relaxes. He is at peace; he need not guard against death any more.
I could not understand this event, no matter how often I saw this picture. I knew, of course, how and why the murder had happened. Lucheni has got on well in the world. When he killed Elizabeth over forty years ago, he had to do his own work in the world; he had to travel humbly about Switzerland in search of his victims; he had but one little two-edged dagger as tool for his crime, and he had to pay the penalty. But now Lucheni is Mussolini, and the improvement in his circumstances can be measured by the increase in the magnitude of his crime. In Elizabeth the insecure and traditionless town dweller struck down the symbol of power, but the modern representative has struck down power itself and degraded its essence. His offense is not that he has virtually deposed his king, for kings and presidents who cannot hold their office lose thereby the title to their kingdoms and republics. His offense is that he made himself dictator without binding himself by any of the contractual obligations which civilized man has imposed on his rulers in all creditable phases of history and which give power a soul to be saved. This cancellation of process in government leaves it an empty violence that must perpetually and at any cost outdo itself, for it has no alternative idea and hence no alternative activity. This aggressiveness leads obviously to the establishment of immense armed forces, and furtively to incessant experimentation with methods of injuring the outer world other than the traditional procedure of warfare.
Violence was, indeed, all I knew of the Balkans—all I knew of the South Slavs. I derived the knowledge from memories of my earliest interest in liberalism, of leaves fallen from this jungle, of pamphlets tied up with string, in the dustiest corners of junkshops, and later from the prejudices of the French, who use the word Balkan as a term of abuse, meaning a rastaquouere type of barbarian. In Paris, awakened in a hotel bedroom by the insufficiently private life of my neighbors, I have heard the sound of three slashing slaps and a woman’s voice crying through sobs, ‘Balkan! Balkan!’ In Nice, as I sat eating langouste outside a little restaurant down by the harbor, there were some shots, a sailor lurched out of the next-door bar, and the proprietress ran after him, shouting, ‘Balkan! Balkan!’ He had emptied his revolver into the mirror behind the bar. And now I was faced with the immense nobility of the King in the film, who was certainly Balkan, Balkan, but who met violence with an imaginative realization which is its very opposite, which absorbs it into the experience it aims at destroying.
But I must have been wholly mistaken in my acceptance of the popular legend regarding the Balkans, for if the South Slavs had been truly violent they would not have been hated first by the Austrians, who worshiped violence in an imperialist form, and later by the Fascists, who worship violence in a totalitarian form. Yet it was impossible to think of the Balkans for one moment as gentle and lamblike, for assuredly Alexander and Draga Obrenovich and Franz Ferdinand and his wife had none of them died in their beds. I had to admit that I quite simply and flatly knew nothing at all about the southeastern corner of Europe; and since there proceeds steadily from that place a stream of events which are a source of danger to me, which indeed for four years threatened my safety and during that time deprived me forever of many benefits, that is to say I know nothing of my own destiny.
That is a calamity. Pascal wrote: ‘Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water, suffices to kill him. But if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.’
In these words he writes the sole prescription for a distinguished humanity. We must learn to know the nature of the advantage which the universe has over us, which in my case seems to lie in the Balkan Peninsula. It 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. While I was marveling at my inertia, I was asked to go to Yugoslavia to give some lectures in different towns before universities and English Clubs, and this I did in the spring of 1936.
We spent the night at Salzburg, and in the morning we had time to visit the house where Mozart was born, and look at his little spinet, which has keys that are brown and white instead of white and black. There the boy sat, pleased by its prettiness and pleased by the sounds he drew from it, while there encircled him the rage of his father at this tiresome, weak, philandering son he had begotten, who could make no proper use of his gifts; and further back still the indifference of his contemporaries, which was to kill him; and further back still, so far away as to be of no use to him, our impotent love for him. That was something we humans did not do very well.
Then we went down to the railway station and waited some hours for the train to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. When it at last arrived, I found myself in the midst of what is to me the mystery of mysteries. For it had left Berlin the night before and was crammed with unhappy-looking German tourists, all taking advantage of the pact by which they could take a substantial sum out of the country provided they were going to Yugoslavia; and I cannot understand the proceedings of Germans. All Central Europe seems to me to be enacting a fantasy which I cannot interpret.
The carriages were so crowded that we could only find one free seat in a first-class compartment, which I took, while my husband sat down in a seat which a young man had just left to go to the restaurant car for lunch. The other people in the compartment were an elderly business man and his wife, both well on in the fifties, and a manufacturer and his wife, socially superior to the others and fifteen to twenty years younger. The business man’s wife kept leaving her seat and running up and down the corridor in a state of great distress, lamenting that she and her husband had no Austrian schillings and therefore could not get a meal in the restaurant car. Her distress was so marked that we assumed they had eaten nothing for many hours, and we gave her a packet of chocolate and some biscuits, which she ate very quickly with an abstracted air.
Between mouthfuls she explained that they were traveling to a Dalmatian island because her husband had been very ill with a nervous disorder affecting the stomach which made him unable to take decisions. She pointed a bitten bar of chocolate at him and said, ‘Yes, he can’t make up his mind about anything! If you say, “Do you want to go or do you want to stay?” he doesn't know.’ Grieving and faithful love shone in her eyes.
My husband was very sympathetic, and said he had had nervous trouble of some sort. He even alleged, to my surprise, that he had passed through a similar period of not knowing his own mind. Sunshine, he said, he had found the only cure.
At Villach the business man’s wife was overjoyed to find she could buy some sausages for herself and her husband. All through the journey she was eating voraciously, running after food down the corridor, coming back munching something, her mouth and bust powdered with crumbs. But there was nothing so voluptuous as greed about all this eating. She was simply stoking herself with food to keep her nerves going, as ill and tired people drink. Actually she was an extremely pleasant and appealing person: she was all goodness and kindness, and she loved her husband very much. She took great pleasure in bringing him all this food, and she liked pointing out to him anything beautiful that we were passing. When she had got him to give his attention to it, she looked no more at the beautiful thing but only at his face.
When we were going by the very beautiful Worther See, which lay under the hills, veiled by their shadows and the dusk so that one could attribute to it just the kind of beauty one prefers, she made him look at it, looked at him looking at it, and then turned to us and said, ‘You cannot think what troubles he has had!’
We made sympathetic noises, and the business man began to grumble away at his ease. It appeared that he owned an apartment house in Berlin, and had for six months been struggling with a wholly unforeseen and inexplicable demand for extra taxes on it. He did not allege that the tax was unjust. He seemed to think that the demand was legal enough, but that the relevant law was so complicated, and was so capriciously interpreted by the Nazi courts, that he had been unable to foresee how much he would be asked for, and was still quite at a loss to calculate what might be exacted in the future. He had also had a great deal of trouble dealing with some undesirable tenants, whose conduct had caused frequent complaints from other tenants, but who were members of the Nazi Party. He left it ambiguous whether he had tried to evict the undesirable tenants and had been foiled by the Nazis, or if he had been too frightened even to try to get redress.
At that the manufacturer and his wife sighed, and said that they could understand. The man spoke with a great deal of reticence and obviously did not want to give away exactly what his business was, lest he should get into difficulties; but he said with great resentment that the Nazis had put a director into his company who knew nothing and was simply a Party man in line for a job. He added, however, that what he really minded was the unforeseeable taxes. He laughed at the absurdity of it all, for he was a brave and jolly man; but the mere fact that he stopped giving us details of his worries, when he was obviously extremely expansive by temperament, showed that his spirit was deeply troubled. Soon he fell silent and put his arm round his wife. The two had an air of being united by a great passion, an unusual physical sympathy, and also by a common endurance of stress and strain to a degree which would have seemed more natural in far older people.
To cheer him up the wife told us funny stories about some consequences of Hitlerismus. She described how the hairdresser’s assistant who had always waved her hair for her had one morning greeted her with tears, and told her that she was afraid she would never be able to attend to her again, because she was afraid she had failed in the examination which she had to pass for the right to practise her craft.
She had said to the girl, ‘I am sure you will pass your examination, for you are so very good at your work.’ But the girl had answered, ‘Yes, I am good at my work! Shampooing can I do, and water-waving can I do, and marcelling can I do, and oil massage can I do, and hair dyeing can I do, but keep from mixing up Goring’s and Goebbels’s birthday, that can I not do.’
They all laughed at this, and then again fell silent.
The business man said, ‘But all the young people, they are solid for Hitler. For them all is done.’
The others said, ‘Ach, so!’ and the business man’s wife began, ‘Yes, our sons,’ and then stopped.
They were all of them falling to pieces under the emotional and intellectual strain laid on them by their government, poor Laocoons strangled by red tape. It was obvious that by getting the population into this state the Nazis had guaranteed the continuance of their system; for none of these people could have given any effective support to any rival party that wanted to seize power; and indeed their affairs, which were certainly typical, were in such an inextricable state of confusion that no sane party would now wish to take over the government, since it would certainly see nothing but failure ahead. Their misery seemed to have abolished every possible future for them.
It was dark when we crossed the Yugoslavian frontier. Handsome young soldiers in olive uniforms, with faces sealed by the flatness of cheekbones, asked us questions softly, insistently, without interest. As we steamed out of the station, the manufacturer said with a rolling laugh, ‘Well, we’ll have no more good food till we’re back here again. The food in Yugoslavia is terrible.’ ‘Ach, so we have heard,’ wailed the business man’s wife, ‘and what shall I do with my poor man! There is nothing good at all, is there?’
This seemed to me extremely funny, for the food of the Yugoslavs has a Slav superbness. They cook lamb and sucking pig as well as anywhere in the world, have a lot of fresh-water fish and broil it straight out of the streams, use their vegetables young enough, have many dark and rich romantic soups, and understand that seasoning should be pungent rather than hot.
I said, ‘You needn’t worry at all. Yugoslavian food is very good.’ The manufacturer laughed and shook his head. ‘No, I was there in the war and it was terrible.’ ‘Perhaps it was at that time,’ I said, ‘but I was there last year, and I found it admirable.’ They all shook their heads at me, smiling, and seemed a little embarrassed. I perceived they felt that English food was so far inferior to German that my opinion on the subject could not be worth having, and that I was rather simple and ingenuous not to realize this. ‘I understand,’ ventured my husband, ‘that there are very good trout.’ ‘Ach, no!’ laughed the manufacturer, waving his great hand. ‘They call them trout, but they are something quite different; they are not like our good German trout.’
They all sat, nodding and rocking, entranced by a vision of the warm goodness of German life, the warm goodness of German food, and of German superiority to all non-German barbarity.
A little while later my husband and I went to the restaurant car and had dinner, which was Yugoslavian and extremely good. When we came back the business man was telling how, sitting at his desk in his office just after the war, he had seen the bodies of three men fall past his windows—Spartacist snipers who had been on his roof and had been picked off by Government troops; how he had been ruined in the inflation, and had even sold his dog for food; how he had made a fortune again, by refinancing of a prosperous industry, but had never enjoyed it because he had always been afraid of Bolshevism, and had worried himself ill finding the best ways of tying it up safely; and how he had spent the last twenty-three years in a state of continuous terror. He had been afraid of the Allies; he had been afraid of the Spartacists; he had been afraid of financial catastrophe; he had been afraid of the Communists; and now he was afraid of the Nazis.
Sighing deeply, he said, evidently referring to something about which he had not spoken, ‘The worst of life under the Nazis is that the private citizen hasn’t any liberty, but the officials haven’t any authority either.’ It was curious that such a sharply critical phrase should have been coined by one whose attitude was so purely passive; for he had spoken of all the forces that had tormented him as if they could not have been opposed, any more than thunder or lightning. He seemed, indeed, quite unpolitically-minded.
Just then I happened to see the name of a station at which we were stopping; and I asked my husband to look it up in a timetable he had in his pocket, so that we might know how late we were. It turned out that we were very late indeed, nearly two hours. When my husband spoke of this all the Germans showed the greatest consternation. They realized that this meant they would almost certainly get into Zagreb too late to catch the connection which would take them the twelve hours’ journey to Split, on the Dalmatian coast, and in that case they would have to spend the night at Zagreb.
I realized again that I should never understand the German people. The misery of these travelers was purely amazing. It was perplexing that they should have been surprised by the lateness of the train. The journey from Berlin to Zagreb is something like thirty hours, and no sensible person would expect a minor train to be on time on such a route in winter, particularly as a great part of it runs through the mountains. It also seemed to me odd that the business man’s wife should take it as an unforeseen horror that her husband, who had been seriously ill and was not yet recovered, should be tired after sitting up in a railway carriage for a day and a night. Also, if she had such an appetite, why had she not brought a tin of biscuits and some ham? And how was it that these two men, who had successfully conducted commercial and industrial enterprises of some importance, were so utterly incompetent in the conduct of a simple journey?
As I watched them in complete mystification, yet another consideration came to horrify them. ‘And what the hotels in Zagreb will be like!’ said the manufacturer. ‘Pigsties! Pigsties!’ ‘Oh, my poor husband!’ moaned the business man’s wife. ‘To think he is to be uncomfortable when he is so ill!’ I objected that the hotels in Zagreb were excellent; that I myself had stayed in an old-fashioned hotel which was extremely comfortable, and that there was a new and huge hotel that was positively American in its luxury. But they would not listen to me.
‘But why are you going to Yugoslavia if you think it is all so terrible?’ I asked. ‘Ah,’ said the manufacturer, ‘we are going to the Adriatic Coast, where there are many German tourists and for that reason the hotels are good.’
I got up and went out into the corridor. It was disconcerting to be rushing through the night with this carriageful of unhappy muddlers, who were so nice and so incomprehensible, and apparently doomed to disaster of a kind so special that it was impossible for anybody not of their blood to imagine how it could be averted. Their helplessness was the greater because they had plainly a special talent for obedience. In the routine level of commerce and industry they must have known a success which must have made their failure in all other phases of their being embittering and strange. Now that capitalism was passing into a decadent phase, and many of the grooves along which they had rolled so happily were worn down to nothing, they were broken and beaten, and their ability to choose the broad outlines of their daily lives, to make political decisions, was now less than it had been originally. It was inevitable that the children of such muddlers, who would themselves be muddlers, would support any system which offered them new opportunities for profitable obedience, which would pattern society with new grooves in place of the old, and would never be warned by any instinct of competence and self-preservation if that system was leading to universal disaster. I tried to tell myself that these people in the carriage were not of importance, and were not typical, but I knew that I lied. These were exactly like all Aryan Germans I had ever known; and there were sixty millions of them in the middle of Europe.
‘This is Zagreb!’ cried the Germans, and began taking all their luggage down from the racks.
They were waiting in the rain on the platform of Zagreb, our three friends. There was Constantine, the poet, a Serb—that is to say, a Slav member of the Orthodox Church, from Serbia. There was Valetta, a lecturer in mathematics at Zagreb University, a Croat—that is to say, a Slav member of the Roman Catholic Church, from Dalmatia. There was Marko Gregorievich, the critic and journalist, a Croat from Croatia. They were all different sizes and shapes, in body and mind.
Constantine is short and fat, with a head like the best-known Satyr in the Louvre, and an air of vine leaves about the brow, though he drinks little. He is perpetually drunk on what comes out of his mouth, not what goes into it. He talks incessantly. In the morning he emerges from his bedroom in the middle of a sentence; and at night he backs into it, so that he can just finish one more sentence. Automatically he makes silencing gestures while he speaks, just in case somebody should take it into his head to interrupt. Nearly all his talk is good, and sometimes it runs along in a colored shadow show like Heine’s Florentine Nights, and sometimes it crystallizes into a little story the essence of hope or love or regret, like a Heine lyric. Of all human beings I have ever met he is the most like Heine; and since Heine was the most Jewish of writers it follows that Constantine is Jew as well as Serb. His father was a Jewish doctor of revolutionary sympathies, who fled from Russian Poland about fifty years ago and settled in a rich provincial town in Serbia and became one of the leaders of the medical profession, which has always been more advanced there than one might have supposed. His mother was also a Polish Jewess, and was a famous musician.
He is by adoption only, yet completely, a Serb. He fought in the Great War very gallantly, for he is a man of great physical courage, and to him Serbian history is his history, his life is a part of the life of the Serbian people. He is now a Government official; but that is not the reason why he believes in Yugoslavia. To him a state of Serbs, Slovenes, and Croats, controlled by a central government in Belgrade, is a necessity if these people are to maintain themselves against Italian and Central European pressure on the west, and Bulgarian pressure, which might become in effect Central European pressure, in the east.
Valetta comes from a Dalmatian town which was settled by the Greeks some hundreds of years before Christ, and he has the strong delicacy and the morning freshness of an archaic statue. They like him everywhere he goes, Paris and London and Berlin and Vienna, but he is hallmarked as a Slav, because his charm is not associated with any of those defects that commonly go with it in other races. He might suddenly stop smiling and clench his long hands, and offer himself up to martyrdom for an idea. He is anti-Yugoslavian; he is a federalist and believes in an autonomous Croatia.
Gregorievich looks like Pluto in the Mickey Mouse films. His face is grooved with grief at the trouble and lack of gratitude he has encountered while defending certain fixed and noble standards in a chaotic world. His long body is like Pluto’s in its extensibility. As he sits in his armchair, resentment at what he conceives to be a remediable injustice will draw him inches nearer to the ceiling, despair at an inevitable wrong will crumple him up like a concertina. Yugoslavia is the Mickey Mouse this Pluto serves. He is ten years older than Constantine, who is forty-six, and thirty years older than Valetta. This means that for sixteen years before the war he was an active revolutionary, fighting against the Hungarians for the right of Croats to govern themselves and to use their own language. In order that the Croats might be united with their free brother Slavs, the Serbs, he endured poverty and imprisonment and exile. Therefore Yugoslavia is to him the kingdom of Heaven on earth. Who speaks more lightly of it spits on those sixteen years of sorrow; who raises his hand against it violates the Slav sacrament. So to him Constantine, who was still a student in Paris when the Great War broke out, and who had been born a free Serb, seems impious in the way he takes Yugoslavia for granted. There is the difference between them that there was between the Christians of the first three centuries, who fought for their faith when it seemed a lost cause, and the Christians of the fourth century who fought for it when it was victorious.
And, to Gregorievich, Valetta is quite simply a traitor. He is more than an individual who has gone astray—he is the very essence of treachery incarnate. Youth should uphold the banner of the right against unjust authority, and should practise that form of obedience to God which is rebellion against tyranny; and it seems to Gregorievich that Valetta is betraying that ideal, for to him Yugoslavia represents a supreme gesture of defiance against the tyranny of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Only a sorcerer could make him realize that the Austro-Hungarian Empire ceased to be when Valetta was six years old, and that he has never known any other symbol of unjust authority except Yugoslavia.
They are standing in the rain, and they are all different and they are all the same. They greet us warmly, and in their hearts they cannot greet each other, and they dislike us a little because it is to meet us that they are standing beside their enemies in the rain. We are their friends, but we are made from another substance. The rich passions of Constantine, the intense, graceful, selected joys and sorrows, of Valetta, and Gregorievich’s gloomy Great Danish nobility, are all cut from the same primary stuff, though in very dissimilar shapes. Sitting in our hotel room, drinking wine, they show their unity of origin. A door opens—they twitch and swivel their heads, and the movement is the same. When these enemies advance on each other, they must move at the same tempo.
My husband has not met any of them before. I see him transfixed by their strangeness. He listens amazed to Constantine’s beautiful French, which has preserved in it all the butterfly brilliances of his youth, when he was one of Bergson’s favorite students and was making his musical studies with Wanda Landowska. He falls under the spell of Constantine. He strains forward to catch the perfect phrase that is bound to come when Constantine’s eyes catch the light, and each of his tight black curls spins on his head, and his lips shoot out horizontally, and his hands grope in the air before him as if he were unloosing the neckcloth of the strangling truth. Now Constantine was talking of Bergson and saying it was to miss the very essence in him to regard him only as a philosopher. He was a magician who had taken philosophy as his subject matter. He did not analyze phenomena, he uttered incantations that invoked understanding.
‘We students,’ said Constantine, ‘we were not the pupils of a great professor; we were the sorcerer’s apprentices. We did strange things that are not in most academic courses. On Sundays we would talk together in the forest of Fontainebleau, all day long sometimes, reconstituting his lectures by pooling our memories. For, you see, in his classroom it was not possible to take notes. If we bent our heads for one moment to take down a point, we missed an organic phrase, and the rest of the lecture appeared incomprehensible. That shows he was a magician. For what is the essential of a spell? That if one word is left out it is no longer a spell. I was able to recognize that at once, for in my town, which is Shabats, there were three houses in a row, and in one house lived my father who was the greatest doctor in our country, and in the next there lived a priest who was the greatest saint in my country, and in the next there lived an old woman who was the greatest witch in my country, and when I was a little boy I lived in the first of these houses and I went as I would into the other two, for the holy man and the witch liked me very much; and I tell you in each of these houses there was magic, so I know all about it as most men do not.’
A line of light ran along the dark map of Europe we all of us hold in our minds; at one end a Serbian town, unknown to me as Ur, peopled with the personnel of fairy tales, and at the other end the familiar idea of Bergson. My husband, I could see, was enraptured. He loves to learn what he did not know before. But in a minute I could see that he was not so happy. Valetta had said that he was making plans for our pleasure in Yugoslavia, and he hoped that we should be able to go up into the snow mountains, particularly if we liked winter sports. My husband said he was very fond of Switzerland, and how he enjoyed going over there when he was tired and handing himself over to the care of the guides. ‘Yes, the guides are so good for us, who are overcivilized,’ said Constantine. ‘They refresh us immensely, when we are with them. For they succeed at every point where we fail. We can be responsible for what we love, our families and our countries, and the causes we think just, but where we do not love we cannot muster the necessary attention. That is just what the guides do, with such a wealth of attention that it amounts to nothing comparable to our attention at all, to a mystical apprehension of the whole universe.
‘I will give you,’ he said, ‘an example. I made once a most beautiful journey in Italy with my wife. She is a German, you know, and she worships Goethe, so this was a pilgrimage. We went to see where he had lived in Venice and Rome, and she was so delighted, you cannot believe—delighted deep in herself, so that her intuition told her many things. “That is the house where he lived!” she cried in Venice, jumping up and down in the gondola, and it was so. At length we came to Naples, and we took a guide and went up Vesuvius, because Goethe went up Vesuvius. Do you remember the passage where he says he was on the edge of a little crater, and he slipped? That was much in my wife’s mind, and suddenly it was given to her to know by intuition that a certain little crater we saw was that same one where Goethe had slipped, so before we could stop her she ran down to it. I saw, of course, that she might be killed at any moment, so I ran after her. But so did the guide, though she was nothing to him. And then came the evidence of this mystic apprehension which is given by the constant vigilance of a guide’s life. Just then this crater began to erupt, and the lava burst out here and there. But always the guide knew where it was coming, and took us to the left or the right, wherever it was not. Sometimes there was barely time for us to be there for more than a second—that was proved afterwards because the soles of our shoes were scorched. For three quarters of an hour we ran thus up and down, from right to left and from left to right, before we could get to safety; and I was immensely happy the whole time because the guide was doing something I could not have done, which it is good to do!’
During the telling of this story my husband’s eyes rested on me with an expression of alarm. It was apparent from Constantine’s tone that nothing in the story had struck him as odd except the devotion of the guide to his charges. ‘Are not her friends very dotty?’ my husband was plainly asking himself. ‘Is this how she wants to live?’ But the conversation took a businesslike turn, and we were called on to consider our plans.
In the morning Zagreb has the warm and comfortable appearance of a town that has been well-aired. People have been living there in physical, though not political, comfort for a thousand years. Moreover, it is full of those vast toast-colored buildings, barracks and law courts and municipal offices, which are an invariable sign of past occupancy by the Austro-Hungarian Empire; and that always means enthusiastic ingestion combined with lack of exercise in pleasant surroundings, the happy consumption of coffee and whipped cream and sweet cakes at little tables under chestnut trees. But it has its own quality. It has no grand river, it is built up to no climax; the hill the old town stands on is what the eighteenth century used to call ‘a moderate elevation.’ It has few very fine buildings except the Gothic Cathedral, and that has been forced to wear an ugly nineteenth-century overcoat. But Zagreb makes from its featureless handsomeness something that pleases like a Schubert song, a delight that begins quietly and never definitely ends.
We believed we were being annoyed by the rain that first morning we walked out into it, but eventually we recognized we were as happy as we have been walking in sunshine through really beautiful cities. It has, moreover, the endearing characteristic noticeable in many French towns, of remaining a small town when it is in fact quite large. A hundred and fifty thousand people live in Zagreb, but from the way gossips stand in the street it is plain that everybody knows who is going to have a baby and when. This is a lovely spiritual victory over urbanization.
We stopped in the public gardens in front of our hotel to look at Mestrovich’s statue of Bishop Strossmayer, which stands in front of the Academy of Science and the Arts which he founded. This was, for me, a moment. I feel for him as others feel for Napoleon and Lord Byron—that time is a most inconvenient veil between us. Of all the great figures in the past I should prefer to see Strossmayer—not because of his genius, which was obviously not great, but because he seems the most definite promise we have yet received that man may produce a superior variation to himself, and life may take an agreeable turn. I had wondered how Mestrovich, who likes handling rough strength, had dealt with Strossmayer’s delicate beauty. It was interesting to see that the definiteness of that delicate beauty had simply taken the matter out of Mestrovich’s hands. He had simply reproduced it, and had veiled it with a sense of power, setting hours in the thick wavy hair, after the manner of Michael Angelo’s Moses.
I should like to know if Mestrovich ever saw his model; he most probably did, for Strossmayer lived until he was ninety, in the year 1905. He had then completed fifty-six years of continuous heroic agitation for the liberation of the Croats and as the fearless denunciator of Austro-Hungarian tyranny. Because of his brilliant performances as a preacher and a scholar, he was at thirty-four made the Bishop of Djakovo, a see which included a vast stretch of the Slav-inhabited territory of the Empire; and he immediately declared himself a passionate pro-Croat. It is an indication of the wrongs suffered by the Slavs that the revenues of this bishopric were enormous, though the poverty and ignorance of the peasants were so extreme they shocked and actually frightened travelers. He amazed everyone by spending these enormous revenues on the interests of the Croats.
While Hungary was trying to Magyarize the Croats by forbidding them to use their own language, and as far as possible depriving them of all but the most elementary education, he financed a number of secondary schools and seminaries for clerics, where the instruction was given in Serbo-Croat; he endowed many South Slav literary men and philologists, both Croats and Serbs; and, what was most important, he insisted on the rights of the Croats and the Slovenes to use the Slav liturgy instead of the Latin. This last was their ancient privilege, for which they had bargained with Rome at the time of their conversion by Cyril and Methodius in the ninth century, when they were a free people. He founded the University of Zagreb, Which was necessary not only for educational reasons, but to give the Croats a proper social status; for in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as in Germany and in the United States, graduation at a university has a class value—it is the mental equivalent of a white collar. Since the Croats had a university, they could not be despised as peasants. He was able to raise pro-Slav feeling in the rest of Europe, for he was the friend of many distinguished Frenchmen, and he was the admired correspondent of Lord Acton and Mr. Gladstone.
In all this lifelong struggle he had the support of no authority. He stood alone. Though Pope Leo XIII liked and admired him, the Ultramontane Party, which wanted to dye the Church in the Italian colors, loathed him because he was one of the three dissentients who voted against the Doctrine of Papal Infallibility. On this matter he was of the same mind as Lord Acton. They also hated him because he defended the rights of the Slavs to their liturgy When he sent a telegram of brotherly greetings to the head of the Orthodox Church in Russia on the occasion of the millenary of the Slav Apostle Methodius, his fellow Catholics, particularly the Hungarians, raged against this as an insult to the Holy See. The sense of being part of a universal brotherhood, of being sure of finding a family welcome in the farthest land, is one of the sweetest benefits offered by the Roman Catholic Church to its members. He had none of it. He had only to leave his diocese to meet coldness and insolence from his fellow Catholics.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire could not persecute Strossmayer to his danger. The Croats loved him too well, and it was not safe to have a belt of disaffected Slavs on the border of Serbia, the free Slav state. But it nagged at him incessantly. When he went to open the Slav Academy in Zagreb the streets were thronged with cheering crowds, but the Government forbade all decorations or illuminations. It took him fifteen years to force on Vienna the University of Zagreb; the statutes were not sanctioned till five years after the necessary funds had been collected. During the negotiations which settled the terms on which Croatia was to submit to Hungary, after Hungary had been given a new status by Elizabeth’s invention of the Dual Monarchy, Strossmayer was exiled to France. At the height of the trouble over his telegram to the Orthodox Church about Methodius, he was summoned to a district of Hungary where the Emperor Franz Josef was attending manoeuvers; and Franz Josef took the opportunity to insult him publicly, though he was then seventy years of age.
This was a bitter blow to him, for he loved Austria, and indeed was himself of Austrian stock, and he wished to preserve the Austro-Hungarian Empire by making the Croats loyal and contented instead of rebels who had the right on their side. Again and again he warned the Emperor of the exact point at which his power was going to disintegrate: of Sarajevo. He told him that if the Austrians and Hungarians misgoverned Bosnia they would increase the mass of Slav discontent within the Empire to a weight that no administration could support, and the Hapsburg power must fall.
But what is marvelous about this career is not only its heroism, but its gayety. Strossmayer was a child of light, exempt from darkness and terror. In person he resembled the slim, long-limbed, and curled Romeo in Delacroix’s ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ and the Juliet he embraced was all grace. The accounts given by European celebrities of the visits they had to him read richly. The foreigner arrived after a night journey at a small station, far on the thither side of civilization, and was received by a young priest followed by a servant described as ‘a pandour with long moustachios dressed in the uniform of a hussar,’ who put him into a victoria drawn by four dappled greys of the Lipizahlen strain which is still to be seen in the Spanish Riding School at Vienna. Twenty-two miles they did in two hours and a half, and at the end, by a small market town, was a true palace. It was nineteenth-century-made, and that was unfortunate, particularly in these parts. There is a theory that the decay of taste is somehow linked with the growth of democracy, but it is completely disproved by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which in its last eighty years grew in fervor for absolutism and for Messrs. Maple of Tottenham Court Road. But there was much worthy of any palace. There was a magnificent avenue of Italian poplars, planted by the Bishop in his young days; there was a superb park, landscaped by the Bishop himself; there were greenhouses and winter gardens, the like of which the eastward traveler would not see again until he had passed through Serbia and Bulgaria and Rumania and had found his way to the large estates in Russia. The guest breakfasted by an open window admitting the perfume of an acacia grove, on prodigious butter and cream from the home farm, on Viennese coffee and rolls made of flour sent from Budapest.
Later he was taken to worship in the Cathedral which the Bishop had built, where peasants proudly wearing Slav costumes were hearing the Slav liturgy. Then there was the return to the palace, and a view of the picture gallery, hung with works of art which Strossmayer had collected in preparation of the Museum at Zagreb. It is an endearing touch that he confessed he was extremely glad of the Imperial opposition which had delayed the foundation of this Museum, so that he had an excuse for keeping these pictures in his own home. After an excellent midday dinner the Bishop exhibited his collection of gold and silver crucifixes and chalices of Slav workmanship, dating from the tenth to the fourteenth century, pointing out the high level of civilization which they betokened. Then the Bishop would take the visitor round his home farm, to see the Lipizahlen horses he bred very profitably for the market, the Swiss cattle he had imported to improve the local stock, and the model dairy which was used for instructional purposes; and he would walk with him in his deer park, at one corner of which he had saved from the axes of the woodcutters a tract of the primeval Balkan forest, within a palisade, erected to keep out the wolves which still ravaged that part of the world. Before supper the visitor took a little rest. The Bishop sent up to him a few reviews and newspapers, the Times, the Revue des Deux Mondes, the Journal des Economistes, La Nuova Antologia, and so on.
After supper, at which the food and drink were again delicious, there were hours of conversation, exquisite in manner, stirring in matter. Strossmayer spoke perfect German, Italian, Czech, Russian, and Serbian, and a peculiarly musical French which bewitched the ears of Frenchmen; but it was in Latin that he was most articulate. It was his favorite medium of expression, and all those who heard him use it even when they were such scholars as the Vatican Council, were amazed by the loveliness he extracted from that not so very sensuous language. About his conversation there seems to have been the clear beauty of the first Latin hymns. The Christians and he alike were possessed by an ardor which was the very quality needed to transcend the peculiar limitations of that tongue. It was an ardor which, in the case of Strossmayer, led to a glorious, unfailing charity towards events. He spoke of his beloved Croats, of the victories of their cause, of his friendships with great men, as a lark might sing in mid-air; but of his struggles with Rome and the Hapsburgs he spoke with equal joy, as a triumphant athlete might recall his most famous contests. His visitors, who had traveled far to reassure him in his precarious position, went home in a state of reassurance such as they had never known before.
This is not a character in life as we know it; it belongs to the world that hangs before us just so long as the notes of a Mozart aria linger in the ear. According to our dingy habit, which is necessary enough considering our human condition, we regard him with suspicion, we look for the snake beneath the flower. All of us know what it is to be moonstruck by charmers and to misinterpret their charm as a promise that now at last, in this enchanting company, life can be lived without precaution, in the laughing exchange of generosities; and all of us have found later that that charm made no promise and meant nothing, absolutely nothing, except perhaps that their mothers’ glands worked very well before they were born. Actually such men often cannot understand generosity at all, since the eupeptic quality which is the cause of their charm enables them to live happily without feeling the need for sweetening life by amiable conduct. They often refrain from contemptuous comment on such folly because they have some use for the gifts of the generous, but even then they usually cannot contain their scorn at what seems a crazy looseness, an idiot interference with the efficient mechanism of self-interest. Hence the biographies of charmers are often punctuated by treachery and brutality of a most painful kind. So we wait for the dark passages in Strossmayer’s story. But they do not come.
It appears that he turned on the spiritual world the same joyous sensuality with which he chose chalices, Italian pictures, horses, cattle, coffee, and flowers. He rejected brutality as if it were a spavined horse, treachery as if it had been chicory in the coffee. His epicureanism did not fail under its last and supreme obligation, so much more difficult than the harshest vow of abstinence taken by ascetics; he preferred love to hate, and made sacrifices for that preference. The sole companions left to him were the Croats; for them he had forsaken all others. But he never hesitated to oppose the Croat leaders over certain errors tending to malice and persecution which sprung up here as they are bound to do in every movement of liberation. Though he risked everything to free the Croats from the dominance of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he would not suffer any attempt to raise a social hatred among the Slavs against the Austrians or the Hungarian peoples; nor did he ever let ill be spoken of the Emperor Franz Josef. Though he was a most fervent propagandist for the Roman Catholic faith, he would have nothing to do with the movement to persecute the Orthodox Church which set the Croat against the Serb. He also set himself a problem of enormous delicacy in his opposition to anti-Semitism, which was an inevitable growth here since the feudal system kept the peasants bound to the land and thereby gave the Jews a virtual monopoly of trade and the professions. For thirty-six years, smiling, he dared deny his friends all titbits to feed the beasts in their bosoms, and lived in peril of making them his enemies, though he loved friendship above all things.
‘There was a life shaped by a sense of form,’ said my husband, and we left the beautiful statue, smiling under the light rain, and went on to the market place.
Part Two: February 1941
Part Three: March 1941
Part Four: April 1941
Part Five: May 1941