…Reading an old book, I find myself on a train in the 1930’s: A Selection from Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon
Zeal combined with ignorance is a destructive force. You have only to consider our politicians who, the more ignorant they are, the more vehemently they express their opinions.
This has been true since ancient times. The emperor Justinian almost singlehandedly wrecked the late Roman Empire, and for all that, he was highly esteemed and reigned for a long time. As things fell apart after his death, I’m sure that there were many citizens of old Constantinople who said on street corners: “This wouldn’t have happened if old Justinian was still alive.” People are capable of being such suckers, whether in a tyranny or a democracy.
I’ve wanted to read this esteemed book, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, for a long time, except for the doubt of why I would want to read hundreds of pages on the state of Yugoslavia in the late thirties.
Then I found myself reading three books in a row on the endgame in Roman history, that’s where Justinian comes in, and I realized that a portion of southeastern Europe that seemed like the sticks to me, was a center of the action in the faltering empire. The emperor Diocletian for example, one of the very rare great emperors, built his retirement palace in the region. And especially in the late period of the ancient world, the Middle East was the economic, cultural and religious center, Western Europe degrading into something of a backwater. So the Emperor Diocletian showed good strategic sense by situating his retirement in Eastern Europe.
In her prologue, West reviews the personal side of the idiocy of the former Austro- Hungarian monarchy, which is more vivid for being just several generations away from West who, as the book opens, is traveling in the unsettled aftermath of that world.
Her approach is feminist for the times. She discusses how the Empress Elizabeth was sandbagged by her harridan mother-in-law, who saw to it she was reminded what a “nobody” she was. In general Elizabeth encountered a problem similar to what I noticed in the late Roman world. Mediocre emperors would routinely assassinate their brilliant help out of jealousy and fearing the competence of their underlings, overconfident that they could safely slaughter “the talent” now that those overachievers had solved their problems for them.
Rebecca is no fool. She discusses the bloodbath at Mayerling, figuring that Rudolf was assassinated because he was too progressive for his reactionary government. She doesn’t buy that he would die by his own hand with a mistress who is not believable as the love of his life. Based on current scholarship, West’s scenario is unlikely.
That’s enough of West’s brilliant rhetorical foreplay. You should read it for yourself. But it does set you up for West’s trip from Austria to the legendary Yugoslav homeland. I know, the country is not there anymore. But it was alive for Rebecca so I’ll maintain the convention.
West and her husband have first class tickets. That’s important, for when they arrive at their compartment there is only one free seat left. When a young man leaves his place temporarily, the remaining passengers, whom you need to realize are all German citizens living under Hitler, let Rebecca and her husband know that the young man is an interloper. He has only a second-class ticket.
The travelers commiserate with Rebecca and her husband; especially since they are delighted that West’s husband speaks flawless German. They all agree that the conductor should be summoned and it is arranged that the young man will be evicted when he attempts to return to his seat. This reminds me of my old days at the opera, where kids who tried to upmarket their seats could be led away in handcuffs…or so it seemed.
The young man is duly required to vacate the seat. West pictures him as a model of forbearance. She also describes him as looking like he hails from a different ethnic background than the rest of the company. His skin coloring is darker. She calls him “epicene” which I take as a word for looking gay. Based on the stickers on his luggage and his build, he appears to be either a dancer or an actor. He certainly seems to be a hell of a lot more interesting than the other travelers in the compartment. I regret that this mysterious man leaves history on this page.
The conductor comes back and they all show their tickets. All of the passengers, save West and her husband, have second-class tickets. And they’re shameless. They think there’s nothing wrong with what they did. You can’t help thinking that the young man was forced out because he was “different”. Perhaps the German passengers thought he was Jewish. West doesn’t bring that up, but I was left wondering.
You have to realize that in this period it was very common to think of national traits as having a basis in biology. So there was a French “race”, a German “race”, a Slavic “race” These distinctions could be considered physical. And the mixing of such races would be considered a perversion in fascist circles. Don’t be sanguine about this. People thought this way, which is scientific nonsense to us.
As West and her husband chat up their fellow passengers, Rebecca decides that she likes some of them. But there are some odd demonstrations of groupthink in their conversation. I know I am disturbed with hindsight because these are citizens of Nazi Germany. But this is a prewar trip and West and her husband don’t know there is going to be a war.
The Germans praise the Austrian scenery they are passing through. And they uniformly put down Yugoslavia, its food and accommodations. When Rebecca points out the contradiction to one couple. (i.e. Then why are you going there on holiday?) They say the area that they will be visiting gets a lot of German tourists so it is better.
The conversation drifts deeper during the long trip. One woman tells Rebecca that she hopes the vacation will calm her husband’s nerves. He is a businessman who is stressed out. He owns an apartment building in Berlin and there are so many unexpected taxes to deal with that he cannot decide how to cope. The other businessman, a manufacturer, mentions that his company has been required to install an incompetent Nazi party hack as a director. So cautiously and by degrees, the Germans are complaining about Hitler’s government. But it seems more like whinging, to use a British expression, than substantive criticism.
You sense that the German passengers have been living with this undertow of anxiety, the whole region has, for decades. Much like fourth century Romans, who West cites, must have felt when everything was slowly falling apart for them and no one could grasp why. As I learned from my readings in ancient history, which backlight Black Lamb and Grey Falcon nicely, two generations are sufficient to wreck a stable and prosperous civilization, the people scarcely having a clue as to what is being done to them.
That’s something to think about as we enjoy life in our prosperous cities, wherever in the world that you happen to be. My edition of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is a used two-volume cloth edition that I picked up on EBay, my current favorite source for books. It’s a British edition from the 1940’s with yellowed pages and a slight mark on the front cover where someone must have laid a coffee cup. Within the inside cover there are two newspaper reviews, that look current with the book, clipped with a somewhat uneven hand. Somehow in the past seventy-five years they haven’t fallen out. I can’t know whose book this was. All used books have a secret history of which we can only grasp some hints. But I appreciate how well this edition has survived.