Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, A Journey through Yugoslavia, Rebecca West

Macedonia (South Serbia)
 
 
Kaimakshalan

TODAY we go to see where my people saved civilization," said Constantine, halting at the table where we were breakfasting in the sun, three red roses in his hand, "today we go to see where Serbia won the war for all you other peoples. I have been to buy a little flower for my wife, because she is very sweet this morning; she is in such a good humour that she has said she will stay today and go to Kaimakshalan with us." When he had gone I said, We must make the best of it," and my husband said, "I wonder if there is anything we can do to rob the day of its horror." "There is," I said, "the hotel people say that they can only give us sucking-pig or lamb paprikasch for the picnic lunch, and she has told us she does not like either. Let us give her that glass of tongue we have been keeping for an emergency." "Yes, that looks a friendly offering," said my husband, "we will produce it on the picnic ground, for she may be embarrassed when we first meet." In this he was wrong, for Gerda, when she came down, showed no sign of knowing that any unusual situation needed to be bridged.

Our drive took us over the plains, past earth-coloured villages and through lands cut into extraordinarily small divisions, mere tastes of fields, which were marked off by animals' skulls mounted on posts. We saw fifteen people ploughing on what looked to us to be no more than five acres of ground. Some nomads passed us, taking their herds of cattle and horses and sheep from the winter to the summer pastures. On one village green a party of gipsy women sat with their brilliant aprons thrown over their heads, silently rocking to and from some of their men, we were told, had been fetched up to the Town Hall for a breach of the law. Over the Greek border we saw villages of white square houses, shining like loaf sugar, built for the refugees the Turks drove out of Smyrna. We came at last to a little house, like any other village house, set on an insignificant little hill, which was the headquarters of King Peter and Prince Alexander during the Macedonian campaign. It has two rooms and a little garden full of irises. We walked uneasily about it, because the imagination can do nothing with what happened here. It is too strange. Here King Peter and Prince Alexander sat and looked at an amphitheatre of low hills before a wall of mountains and reflected that who took the peak called Kaimakshalan, which is to say the Buttertub, dominated the plains, and that it must be taken, though it could not be taken. Their performance of this impossible task puts them among the great men of the world; and the other event which came to pass in this cottage also puts them in some prodigious category, but it is not known what. The Salonika conspiracy proves that history has no authority, because there are secrets of the first importance that can be kept, and motives so complicated that they cannot be discovered by guess-work.

It was here that in 1917 Alexander ordered the arrest of a number of people, including "Apis" (Dragutin Dimitriyevitch), and Tankositch and Tsiganovitch, the two minor members of the "Black Hand" who gave Princip the arms for the Sarajevo attentat, and Mehmedbashitch, the Moslem boy who failed to throw his bomb at Franz Ferdinand and then rushed to the station and took train for Montenegro. They were charged with conspiring against Alexander's life. "Apis" and the Black Handers were sentenced to death and shot; and Mehmedbashitch was condemned to twenty years' imprisonment. Not one soul in the length and breadth of the Balkans believes that they were guilty; and it is now an offence against the law for a private person to possess a report of the trial. It cannot be mentioned in a newspaper and would not be mentioned in a speech, and I have met intelligent young university graduates who had never heard of it.

The commonest explanation of this mystery is Byzantine in flavour. It is said that Alexander had lost heart and become convinced that he would have to sue for a separate peace from the Central European powers, and that he therefore wanted to be able to say, "Yes, the people who conspired to assassinate Franz Ferdinand were shocking scoundrels, but they had nothing to do with me. In fact, they later tried to assassinate me also." And if when he said this the conspirators were already dead or in prison, he would be saved the embarrassment of being asked by the Central European powers to hand them over, which he could not have done without alienating his people. This theory is supported by some words repeated to me by a German friend of mine as having been uttered some years ago by a Serbian in Berlin. This man, who was an ex-officer and had been for many years in exile, said to him, "Yes, I would like to be back in Serbia, but 'Apis' was my chief, and 'Apis' warned me that I must fly at once, because they meant to kill all our group, and only 'Apis' was going to stay, because he himself thought it would be for the good of our country if he died." My German friend had no idea of the event to which these words referred, and had remembered them only for their odd Slav suicidal spirit. The complicity they attribute to "Apis" is not at all incompatible with his character as we know it, dominated as it was by an obsession with violent death unleashing historical crises.

Yet that solution is not satisfactory. I have met a Moslem Herzegovian, now middle-aged, who was an intimate friend of Mehmedbashitch, and he tells a story which compels belief that there were yet other elements controlling Alexander's action. He had a command in the Salonika campaign, and one day after the trial he received a smuggled letter from Mehmedbashitch asking him to go and see him in a Serbian prison on a Greek island. He contrived a visit to him and found the boy in a pitiable state of anguish and bewilderment. He had been arrested in France, and before he went back to Greece the French had treated him not only as if he were guilty of a serious crime, but had made repeated efforts to compel him to confess something, he did not know what. Now, it is obvious that the French cannot have been sympathetic accomplices in a scheme by which the Serbian royal family was attempting to make a separate peace. Nor can the Serbian authorities, who knew that the charge which was going to be made against Mehmedbashitch was false, have pressed the French to obtain a confession from him. But the mystery did not stop there. Now that the Serbian authorities had had him tried and sentenced for conspiracy to murder Alexander, he was still being asked to confess to something. The Herzegovinian had no doubt that Mehmedbashitch was not only innocent of conspiracy to murder, but was also ignorant of the matter, whatever it was, to which he was expected to confess. He was a worthy but unimpressive youth of no importance, in whom people in charge of dangerous enterprises would be most unlikely to confide. When the Herzegovinian returned to the front he went to Alexander and told him that in his opinion Mehmedbashitch was being badly and foolishly treated. He did this without fear, because he had a record of honourable service to the Serbian cause. It is odd that a monarch should be suspected of putting his subjects to death and imprisoning them on false charges, and at the same time should be trusted to respect a young officer who had shown fidelity to the national ideal. Alexander listened to him intently and then put to him a series of questions which he found completely incomprehensible. "I am sure he had something in his mind," he said, "but I have no idea what it was, and he was very unhappy about it; he was desperate and very angry." A short time afterwards, and apparently in consequence of this conversation, Mehmedbashitch was released, and is still living in Sarajevo, a carpenter with a marked disinclination to discuss politics.

There is no hypothesis that fits these facts into a recognizable pattern. Sometimes it seems to me possible that they relate to a story of which rumours are heard, though now only faintly, in Sarajevo. There were obviously two crimes committed against Franz Ferdinand: one active, by Princip and his associates, one passive, by the royal guards who did not guard. It is said that yet a third had been prepared, and that there were people in Sarajevo on that St. Vitus's Day who had expected the guilt to be theirs. Nobody will state quite clearly who is supposed to have inspired these people, but the guess would be that it was an Austrian influence too malignant to remain passive. It might be that this is correct, but that there had also been involved as cat's-paw some indiscreet foreign personage, capable of being tempted to this rashness by an ambition that had been inflamed by frustration. If the assassination should turn out to have fruitful consequences he might have made a bid for power which, backed by the army, might have come near to success. This is simply guess-work. But it has the recommendation of explaining why Alexander should feel an intense interest in the crime of Sarajevo long after it had been an accomplished fact. It must be remembered that Alexander, like the rest of the world, had never seen the records of the trial and therefore would not be aware that Mehmedbashitch was a mediocrity with the most tenuous connection with the crime. This makes the mystery more impenetrable by historic method, for Alexander was probably working on totally false clues. He was also one of the most secretive men that ever filled high places. Among the purple irises I thought of the long shelves of university libraries, their striation under lofty vaults, the reflected light that shines from historians' spectacles, and I laughed.

Thereafter our road ran up into the mountains, where the Black Drin, a river which many British and French soldiers will recall with loathing, tumbles between bouldered hills. Then grass banks, studded with cow-slips, rose to beechwoods, and later we came to firwoods carpeted with yellow pansies, violets, and very large forget-me-nots. These flowers gave one less pleasure than we could have believed because of Gerda's effort to discover why Kaimakshalan was famous. Constantine explained that the Germans and Bulgarians had held the mountain, and had fortified it with heavy artillery and machine-guns, and that the Serbians had climbed up the mountains and taken the fortifications. "But," objected Gerda, "if the Germans and the Bulgarians were up there with machine guns, why did they let you Serbians get up there?" Constantine said, "Well, that is just the point, they couldn't prevent us." She asked, "But how did you get up." He answered, "We climbed up, we walked up." "Nonsense," she said, "a man cannot climb up a mountain where people are shooting machine-guns down on him." Constantine answered and it sounds so well in German that I will leave it in that tongue "So dachten die Deutschen und so dachten die Bulgaren, aber so dachten nicht der Konig Alexander and die Serbenl"

After a pause Gerda asked, "Were there mostly Germans here or mostly Bulgarians?" He answered, "Mostly Bulgarians." "Ah, now I understand!" she explained exultantly. "That explains it all. It was treachery. The Bulgarians betrayed the Germans to you Serbs." "I think it was not so," said Constantine wearily, "the Bulgarians hated us then and for long after." "Nonsense!" said Gerda. "You were all Slavs, you would combine against our German blood. It was treachery. The Bulgarians betrayed the Germans to you. Of course people could not climb up a mountain if other people were shooting down on them, and the answer simply is that they did not shoot. But in any case, how did the Serbs come to be here? I thought they had been driven out through Albania to the sea. How did they manage to get back here again?" "They came through Greece," Constantine replied. "Oh, through Greece, did they!" cried Gerda. "And yet you dare complain of the Germans for going through Belgium into France!" "But Belgium was neutral and Greece was our ally!" squealed Constantine. "I suppose to you and the English that makes a great difference," said Gerda ironically.

But now the high mountains took us into their peace. We left the automobile on the bare highlands just below the snow, where there was a village of chalets, sightless with their shuttered windows. The nomads who come here in the summer and make cheese had not yet dared come up, so late was the spring. We trod on turf drab with the long hardship of ill weather, but starred with the hard blue light of glory-of-the-snow and the effete mauve flame of the mountain crocus, and looked up at the long ridge of snow, five miles long, that is furrowed by a pilgrim's way to the church on the high peak. There could be no question of going there without proper climbing boots, but we followed the track as far as we could go, the crystal air making us all happy. Gerda became contented, and was pleasant to Constantine. We glacised down a slope and found a boulder surrounded by a sudden affluence of pansies growing Sheer from the surrounding snow, and sat on it, staring down at the battlefield that tilted forward to the plains, seamed with deep valleys sunk in firwoods. The joy of the mountains is real, because it is of the blood and the muscles, where life has its ultimate stand, and yet it is false. Everything that I saw or heard as I sat on the boulder pleased me, yet the battlefield below me proved that I had been born into an age too uncertain about fundamental ideas for continued existence to be easy.

Yes, the proof was there. Surely there are certain things about a battlefield which can be taken for granted by everybody; the first being that if men fought well there for a worthy object they proved themselves valuable human beings. How can it not be so? There are objects which are worth fighting for: the fate of the Slavs under the Turks proved it once and for all. That non-resistance paralyses the aggressor is a lie; otherwise the Jews of Germany would all be very well today. A race that has not good soldiers must be enslaved by any neighbouring race that has them: a race that has not the soldierly characteristics of courage and discipline cannot in later ages refuse to fight unnecessary wars and insist on proceeding with the work of civilization. If ever peace is to be imposed on the world it will only be because a large number of men who could have taken part in the drill display by the Guards or Marines or at the Royal Tournament turn that strength and precision to the service of life.

This I believe to be true, in spite of the obvious defects of many professional soldiers, which afflict them surely not because they are soldiers, but because they are professional. It is doubtful whether army officers of high rank are more limited or unsound in their general ideas than lawyers or doctors of an equivalent degree of specialization. It is in any case unlikely that a soldier would hold as silly ideas about any sphere of civilian activity as vast numbers of civilians would hold about this battlefield. To countless thousands, even millions of people in England and America, the slopes of Kaimakshalan would have no meaning whatsoever except as a place where a lot of people had perished ingloriously, as they might have in a railway accident, because they were stupid enough to get mixed up in a fight. Many Americans, owing to their inexperience of aggression, sincerely believe that all wars are planned by armament manufacturers and that no people ever suffers any real maltreatment at the hands of another. They would not credit the simple fact that the Germans and Austrians and Bulgarians had invaded Serbia with the intention of murdering the inhabitants and seizing their property. Not having been educated to accept the possibility of such an act by the contemplation of a large area where the Turks had certainly done this very thing to the Balkans, and had gone on doing it for five centuries, they feel that this must be a fable spread by Vickers or Skoda. There has pap been in America a wave of cynicism, entirely mindless, destitute of the content, save "Oh, yeah" and "So what," which, by a strange twist, results in a bland acceptance of the whole universe that has never been surpassed by Christian Scientists. An automatic scepticism regarding stories of atrocities leads to a rosy belief that every member of an invading army behaves with the courtesy of a cinema theatre usher. The Serbs must have been mistaken in believing that the Germans and the Austrians passed through village after village, wrecking houses, smashing the furniture, emptying corn and pouring wine and oil into the mud, and trampling on the icons. Any peasant in the invaded countries over thirty can tell you that it was so, but innumerable Americans, over and under thirty, can tell you that it was not so. This battlefield was therefore to them an area of pure nonsense, discreditable to the human race.

And so it is to some extent to many English intellectuals. If the Serbs had done something... something... something, they need not have fought. So one feels, when one is young, on hearing that a friend has to .have a dangerous operation for cancer. Surely if she had not eaten meat, if she had not eaten salt, she need not have had cancer; and by inference one need not have cancer oneself. Yet cancer exists, and has a thousand ways of establishing itself in the body; and there is no end to the ways one country may make life intolerable for another. But let us not think of it any more, let us pretend that operations are unnecessary, let every battlefield seem a place of prodigious idiocy. Of this battlefield, indeed, we need never think, for it is so far away. What is Kaimakshalan? A mountain in Macedonia, but where is Macedonia since the Peace Treaty? This part of it is called South Serbia. And where is that, in Czechoslovakia, or in Bulgaria.: And what has happened there? The answer is too long, as long indeed, as this book, which hardly anybody will read by reason of its length. Here is the calamity of our modern life, we cannot know all the things which it is necessary for our survival that we should know. This battlefield is deprived of its essence in the minds of men, because of their fears and ignorances; it cannot even establish itself as a fact, because it is crowded out by a plethora of facts.

Dragutin followed us up the track, making as he went little posies for Gerda and myself. "I feel a fool in this holy place," he said, "because l was too young to be in the war." "Yes, indeed, the place is holy," said Constantine. "If we could only bring a thousand Croats up here and show them how liberty is won." "Yes, yes," said Dragutin, bursting into laughter, "show them how liberty is won, and then hang the lot of them." He meant the Croats no actual harm; nothing would have been further from his mind than that he would offer any physical violence to a Croat, but such was his lively and telling way of referring to the political differences that rive Yugoslavia. "But you can't sit up here all day," he said, "holy place or not, I have driven you enough to know that that won't do for you instead of your dinner."

We ate at a tourist hut ten miles or so down the mountainside, very Swiss among the pinewoods, save for 'the soldiers' graves in a clearing across the road. Two young soldiers who were in charge of the hut came out and set up a trestle table for us, and I laid out the food. Gerda did not help, and I thought this was because she was happy sitting in the sunshine that came through the cold air all light and no heat, a bodiless excitement. But she was still in the grip of her obscure misery, and when we gave her the tongue she asked grimly, "What is this?" Weakly I explained, "We thought you might like this, as you said you cannot eat sucking-pig and paprikasch." To this she answered, "It is not that I cannot eat sucking-pig and paprikasch, but I do not see why I should eat them all the time." She then drew the tongue towards her and cut herself a helping without reluctance. Because my husband held the plate steady for her, her face crumpled up with racial hatred too irrational to find words.

On the step of the automobile Dragutin sat and ate his lunch between the two young soldiers, who had the dutiful and dedicated look I have noticed so often in Yugoslav conscripts. His lunch was, as always, ascetic and chosen in accordance with the principles of sympathetic magic: he liked lean meat and rough black bread and paprika, and he regarded as weakening all soft and slippery things like butter and kaymak and sardines. "Hey, did you ever hear the like of this!" he called to us. "These two say that they know it is a great honour to be the guardians of Kaymakchalan, and they are content in the daytime, but it's terrible in the night, because they hear the dead soldiers calling for their mothers." "What do they say?" asked Constantine. "They say, 'Yao matte! Yao matte!'" one young soldier told us. The words mean "Alas, mother!" And of course the others, the Germans and the Bulgarians, say it in their own languages," added the other. They both shuddered and went on eating with the solemnity of young calves at a haybox.

I had always wondered whether people who have a primitive attitude towards fighting, who regard it as a necessary and noble activity, were perhaps spared the full realization of the piteousness of death in battle. Now I knew, and life was by so much the more disagreeable; and I had a further testimony to the fatuousness of such pacifism as points out the unpleasantness of war as if people had never noticed it before. I regretted the amateurishness of much in modern thought, but realized that this was only proof of the recalcitrance of the material on which thought must work. On my journey home I felt unequal to sharing the vision of Dragutin which constantly pierced to the primordial disharmony of life which I would have liked to forget. Driving down through the colourless yet radiant hills he came to a stop that we might see in the sky above us an angry monogram which was an eagle fighting with a stork. Later we got out and drank from a spring that leaped out of a rock to join the Black Drin, and Dragutin shot out a finger at an emerald lizard a foot long that leaped through the grass between my feet. "It is poisonous," said Dragutin. "It is not," said Constantine, but I knew be was only being patriotic. Back in my seat, I fled from this dangerous universe into sleep.

I woke and found that the automobile had broken down beside a fountain, and that Dragutin has tinkering with the engine under the appreciative eyes of three superb women in magnificently embroidered robes, each of whom was carrying a blue-enamelled tin jug with queenly grace. The lot of all the beautiful women who go down to the waters in romantic lands has been irradiated as by sunshine at the passing of the amphora and the coming of enamelware. Dimly I heard Dragutin tell them that the car had broken down because we had passed a priest riding on a donkey, and the queens splutter into laughter. I slept again, and then I woke we were near the outskirts of Bitolj, and I looked across a patch of grass to a little house that stood in a vineyard, with a porch of vine-clad poles, and a flimsy iron balcony under its upper windows. "Stop the car!" I said. "Stop the car!"

I had reason; for on the balcony stood a man dressed in shining grey garments who was announcing his intention to address the plains by a gesture of supreme authority. The proud stance of his body showed that he had dug the truth out of the earth where it lay under the roots of the rock. The force of his right arm showed that he had drawn fire from heaven, so that he might weld this truth into our life, which thus shall not perish with our bodies. The long shadows lay bound to the plains, the mountains' bleakness was explored by the harsh horizontal beams of the falling sun; they, and the men and beasts who laboured on them to no clear purpose, would know their deliverance so soon as they had heard him. Near by there squatted on the grass beside the roadside two wretched veiled women, faceless bundles of dust-coloured rags, probably Moslem divorced wives of the sort, more pitiable than the beggars of the towns, who hang about the fields and stretch out their hands to the peasants. It seemed as if they must spring up and throw aside their veils never to beg again as soon as he had spoken.

But he would never speak. He was a scarecrow dressed in rags which had been plastered in mud to give them solidity against the winter, and he had been stored on the balcony till it was time to put him out among the fruiting vines. His authority was an exhalation from a bundle of straw, as the murmured promise of salvation from the Roumanian gipsy in the central square of Belgrade had been an exhalation from the action of alcohol on her tissues. The soul can be uplifted, it can be seduced into seeing an end to its misery and believing that all has been planned for its good from the beginning, by a chance concatenation of matter that in fact means nothing and explains nothing, that is simply itself. So potent was the argument of the scarecrow to the eye that it made for incredulity regarding all other exaltations. It might be that the Mozart symphony which had issued what I had taken to be a proof of beauty from the restaurant radio on the Frushka Gora was not in a different category from the scarecrow's gesture and the gipsy's promise, but only at the other end of the scale, and that it proved nothing save that flesh has a wider range than straw, and that there is a subtler drunkenness than comes of wine.

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