Focus on Croatia


Rebecca West’s classic travelogue of Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, begins at the railway station in Zagreb, Croatia, 1937. Robert Kaplan, following her trail in 1989, begins his book Balkan Ghosts at the same railway station.

In 1918, the Croats, Serbs, and Slovenes merged, and formed the kingdom known as Yugoslavia. Rebecca West’s intimidatingly extensive book (she was truly a woman ahead of her time) delves into this concept known as “Yugoslavia”. Her book has been described as a cross between The Decline and Fall of the Roamn Empire and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which I think is beautifully apt. She visited Yugoslavia in 1936, and fell so in love with the place that she returned in 1937. She called Yugoslavia “the country I have always seen between sleeping and waking.” Her massive book is the result of these trips. One of the things which makes her book so fascinating, and so terrifying, is that, in retrospect, the reader knows that all of this is about to end. World War II is approaching. Nothing can stop it now. Communism is coming. In a matter of 5 or 6 years, the dictatorship of Tito would be established, and history would stop. For over 40 years. It’s unbelievable.

Rebecca West senses that something big is coming. She is “already convinced of the inevitability of the second Anglo-German war”, and sees that “the whole world is a vast Kossovo, an abominable blood-logged plain”. The woman is nobody’s fool. She says in the first paragraph of her book: “All Central Europe seems to be enacting a fantasy which I cannot interpret.” Her journey through Yugoslavia is her quest for interpretation.

After all, SOMEBODY needs to interpret the Balkans for us! It’s filled with Byzantine intrigue, long long memories, lots of hate, lots of pride, everybody tangled up with one another, everybody yearning for lost glory. Rebecca West is an amazing guide.

Robert Kaplan says of her book, which changed his life, and put him on the path he is now on today: “By any broader definition, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is, like Yugoslavia, a sprawling world unto itself: a two-volume, half-a-milliion-word encyclopedic inventory of a country; a dynastic saga of the Habsburgs and the karageorgevitches; a scholarly thesis on Byzantine archaeology, pagan folklore, and Christian and Islamic philosophy. The book also offers a breathtaking psychoanalysis of the German mind and of the 19th century origins of fascism and terrorism. It was a warning, of near-perfect clairvoyance, of the danger that totalitarianism posed to Europe in the 1940s and beyond.”

West, after spending only a couple of days in Zagreb, called it a “shadow-show.” By this she meant: the people were already so distracted and absorbed in the divisions between them (Orthodox Croat vs. Orthodox Serb, plus the hundred other barriers which kept them from one another) that they were like phantoms. Insubstantial. Ghosts. Even before the Nazis arrived. Tyranny and dictatorship had a very easy time taking over Croatia. The people were already “divided and conquered”. West sensed this. She found it tragic.

Croatia had long been one of the most prosperous and independent country in the Balkans. But alighting from the train into Zagreb, West felt that those days were over. The past had risen up, and had overshadowed everything else.

Kaplan writes (in regards to the populace of Croatia, filled with ethnic hatred and suspicion): “The Nazi occupation detonated these tensions. In primitive ferocity — if not in sheer numbers — the massacre in Catholic Croatia and neighboring Bosnia-Hercegovina of Orthodox Serbs was as bad as anything in German-occupied Europe. Forty-five years of systematized poverty under Tito’s Communists kept the wounds fresh.”

So when Yugoslavia broke apart, violently, the 45 years of oppression and silence vanished in an instant, and all the hatred from the past came exploding out. Surprising everybody in the world with its savagery. Even though Rebecca West (and others) had basically predicted it.

Kaplan says:
I immediately grasped that the counterrevolution in Eastern Europe included Yugoslavia, too. But because the pressure of discontent was being released horizontally, in the form of one group against another, rather than vertically against the Communist powers in Belgrade, the revolutionary path in Yugoslavia was at first more tortuous and, therefore, more disguised. That was why the outside world did not take notice until 1991, when fighting started.

It took no clairvoyance to see what was coming, however. My visit to Yugoslavia was eerie precisely because everyone I spoke with — locals and foreign diplomats alike — was already resigned to big violence ahead. Yugoslavia did not deteriorate suddenly, but gradually and methodically, step by step, through the 1980s, becoming poorer and meaner and more hate-filled by the year. That’s why every conversation I had was so sad.

Kaplan describes entering the world-famous Esplanade Hotel, right next to the Zagreb train station:

I walked a hundred yards in the rain from the railway station to the Esplanade Hotel: a massive, sea-green edifice that might easily be mistaken for a government ministry, manifesting the luxurious decadence — the delicious gloom — of Edwardian England or fin-de-siecle Vienna. I entered a ribbed, black-and-white marble lobby adorned with gold-framed mirrors, drawn velvet curtains and valences, and purple carpets. The furniture was jet black, and the lamp shades were golden yellow. The lobby and dining hall resembled a cluttered art gallery whose pictures recalled the universe of Sigmund Freud, Gustav Klimt, and Oskar Kokoschka: modernist iconography that indicates social disintegration and the triumph of violence and sexual instinct over the rule of law.

Kaplan meets up with Slavenka Draculic, a journalist in Zagreb, who is waiting for him in the lobby. He describes her bold designer clothes, her intense perfume. It feels over-the-top to him. He writes:

The overall message was unmistakable: despite Communist-inflicted poverty and the damp, badly heated apartments and the sorry displays in the shop windows all around, we Croats are Roman Catholic, and Zagreb is the eastern bastion of the West; you, the visitor, are still in the orbit of Austria-Hungary, of Vienna — where the modern world was practically invented — and don’t you forget it!”

Slavenka explains to Kaplan: “This place is not Hungary, Poland, or Romania. Rather, it is the Soviet Union in mininature. For example, this is happening in Lithuania, but that is happening in Tajikstan. This is happening in Croatia, but that is happening in Serbia or Macedonia. Each situation is unique. There are no easy themes here. Because of Tito’s break with Stalin, the enemy in Yugoslavia was always within, not without. For years we were fooled by what was only an illusion of freedom.”

Communism was terrible for Croatia. Of course. But without it, tribal ethnicity knows no limits, there are no more checks on expressions of inter-tribal hatreds. Kaplan speaks of the wreckage left by Communism’s collapse, the dangerous void. Things are always more complicated than what they seem:

As the flood waters of Communism receded and the land became recognizable again, much that was understandable and easily forgiven through the 1980s, the last decade of the postwar era, ceased to be so. Only against the backdrop of Tito’s grim, industrial feudalism and the steel jaws of his secret police could the legacy of Habsburg Austria-Hungary and the Roman Catholic Church — and by extension, of Pope John Paul II — look so benign. Indeed, the aspect of Croatian nationalism that saw itself as culturally superior to the Serbs — the very nationalist tradition that had inspired [Cardinal] Stepinac’s original desire to see the Serbs converted to Catholicism — could not have come about without the active incitement of the Habsburg court and the Vatican.

Rebecca West ends her time in Zagreb with a visit to a statue of Bishop Strossmayer (the man I spoke about a couple of days ago, who tried to promote unity between the Orthodox Christians and the Catholics). He is no longer a fashionable hero for Croatia. They love Archbishop Stepinac, the nationalist ethnically proud “Catholics Only” inciter. But a statue of Bishop Strossmayer remains in Zagreb, and West (as well as Kaplan) make a pilgrimage to it. Recognizing that if there is to be any hope for Croatia, Croatians must also embrace the legacy of Strossmayer.

Kaplan talks about the statue:
The sculptor who had executed the statue of Strossmayer was Ivan Mestrovic — the same Ivan Mestrovic who, many years later, in 1960, carved the tomb of another local patriot, Alojzije Stepinac. There was no contradiction here. Mestrovic was a personal witness to the noble side of Stepinac’s character. In 1943, during a brief visit by Stepinac to Rome, Mestrovic begged Stepinac not to go back to Croatia because his life was increasingly at risk there. Stepinac replied that he had already accepted his fate: if the Ustashe [Croatian nationalist group] didn’t kill him, the Communists would. Having started at a point of complete political blindness, the archbishop brutally applied to himself the correct lesson of the “black lamb” and the “grey falcon”: he was willing to be the sacrificial lamb, not out of self-righteousness, but in order to fight for others.

Kaplan closes his chapter on Croatia, Zagreb, and Rebecca West with the following moving paragraph:

History in this gray, intimate city was indeed subject to many interpretations. Pope John Paul II seemed poised to give his. (As of late 1992, there were still no official visits for a Papal visit to Zagreb. But given the geographical closeness of this Catholic city to the Vatican, and the sufferings endured by the Croats in the civil war, it seems highly conceivable that the Pope will pay a visit sometime in this decade.) If and when the Pope did come to this outpost of Western Christianity, so near and yet so far from the Vatican, he would havee to break with Vatican tradition concerning Yugoslavia and come to heal and to reconcile. I stood respectfully in the chilling rain before the statue of Bishop Strossmayer, lover of Cyril and Methodius, aware that this was the monument in Zagreb, more than [Stepinac’s tomb] in the cathedral, that the Pope must bow down before.

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