Lutfi’s bar will not be opening again

Basil Davidson

  • Fitzroy Maclean by Frank McLynn
    Murray, 413 pp, £25.00, October 1992, ISBN 0 7195 4971 X
  • Franz Joseph by Jean-Paul Bled, translated by Teresa Bridgeman
    Blackwell, 359 pp, £45.00, September 1992, ISBN 0 631 16778 1

North beyond Sarajevo is where the hills of Bosnia become less grey and gaunt than they are elsewhere, and a little further north again they slope away to the plain of Semberija along the Sava River. It is a pleasant enough country in normal times although a hungry one, with its peasants inhabiting scattered hamlets and family homesteads. There are also some famous old towns such as Travnik and Gradacac and Tuzla, a good deal modernised since about 1960 but otherwise unchanged in their Muslim loyalties and love of talk and strong laughter, or so it was until the ‘ethnic cleansers’ arrived a year ago. This is the region where British troops guarding UN convoys began work in November, an unenviable duty at the best of times and now we are in the worst of times; may they enjoy good luck, for there will be little else to enjoy. But if ever they have time to lift their eyes from the horror now imposed by Serb and Croat killers of Bosnian civility, they will be moved by this majestic landscape with its long slow spines lifting away on every side, Maglaj and Majevica: brda joj se plave, ‘where hills climb high into the blue’, as the peasants in my time there used to sing. And if they have a taste for reading history, as soldiers often do, they can turn when they come home again – which one has to hope will be soon – to the novels of Ivo Andric, The Bridge on the Drina and The Chronicle of Travnik, Bosnia’s Waverley and Redgauntlet, and learn about ‘how it used to be’ in this remote and peaceful province of the Stambul Sultan’s empire, while savouring the conversation of Hamdi Beg’s coevals in anciently remembered bars such as Lutfi’s kafana, now reduced from fame to bloodstained ruin.

This fact of an ancestral Bosnian civility may be hard to accept in the light of what has been happening there now. Yet this was usually a safe and easy-going land, aside from piratical incursions now and then or occasional disasters such as the Habsburg emperor’s annexation of 1908, precursor of the First World War because it raised the hackles of Pan-Serbian nationalism. A welcome new biography of Francis Joseph by the French historian, Professor Jean-Paul Bled, comes as a useful and erudite reminder of all that, for the outcome of the annexation now has its painful parallel in the outcome of Europe’s hasty recognitions of breakaway fragments of what is no longer Yugoslavia. The Herzegovina-and-Bosnia swallowed so indigestibly by Francis Joseph has sunk into the dreadful miseries of factious extremism, which is the disgraceful reason why UN convoys are required there. But the historical fact is sure; and in this catastrophe it will be found to mark the beginning of wisdom about whatever good may yet be able to prevail: the Bosnian Republic declared after 1945 by the Partisan movement and army of liberation – a name which meant exactly what it said – made peace in this war-pestered country and kept that peace with no important breakdown for almost forty years. This was a Bosnia issued from social revolution whose tone and atmosphere, however modernised in its small towns and in Sarajevo, could still retain cheerful echoes of Lutfi’s bar and its kind; whose Islam had no slightest taste for fundamentalism à la Teheran and the ayatollahs but was devout without being invasive; whose Christians followed their popes but altogether failed to hate their Muslim neighbours; and whose Jews, gathered in their now miniature Sephardic congregations, could recite their Hebrew prayers in the same lilting accents drawn from the same Serbian language they otherwise spoke at home, and suffer no renewal of any holocaust. This Bosnia, in short, was a memorable success. After the present tumult and the shouting, history will remember Bosnia like that.

The fact is the more remarkable because Bosnia’s republic came to birth out of terrible times, worse even than the Nineties. The Nazi-Fascist onslaughts of 1941 and the serial massacres they set in train, as Croat extremism made away with whatever civility the armies of occupation cared to tolerate, were enormously destructive. But they were not enough to destroy the will to resist and fight back, so that by the end of 1942 the Partisan movement and its soldiers had gained a superiority here and were able, in 1945, to harvest the sociopolitical consensus they had won, if at ferocious cost in casualties, and establish a peace that would easily endure until evil times returned four decades after. Seen from these angles of experience, as distinct from other angles of propaganda or mere ignorance of South Slav realities, the British wartime effort to aid and reinforce this federalising Partisan resistance, whether in Bosnia or elsewhere, now emerges ever more strongly as an admirable enterprise as Travnik and its neighbouring towns are reduced to ruin by chetnik or ustasha persecution: persecution, that is, by the enemies and rivals of the Partisans. To say this in Britain has not been fashionable. A raft of polemic has sought to argue the contrary. Some of these writings have been the work of sober but puzzled critics; others, more numerous have purveyed the sorry rantings of boobies incapable of recognising facts when they see them. One hopes that the sober critics will now compare the outcome of 1945 with the outcome of 1990; the boobies are probably such as will never learn.

To useful books on the subject Frank McLynn now adds an admiring but judiciously objective biography of the British soldier who came to play a leading role in this British reinforcement of the Partisans. The general story that he has to tell is very well done, and follows the archival record now largely available while adding agreeable detail and often amusing gossip. The story’s essence is in three parts. The first of these took its rise from an urgent requirement of our Middle East Command before and after the desert battles of 1942. This called for violent but also frequent interruption of German lines of supply southward through Yugoslavia (and Greece) to the Mediterranean. Late in 1942 that was to some extent achievable in Greece, because of Greek resistance to the enemy, and was memorably achieved in such instances as that of the crippling of the Gorgopotamus viaduct. But our Command, by way of its ‘set the Continent ablaze’ contingent, the Special Operations Executive (SOE), had failed to find any Serbian or other Yugoslav resistance to do the same thing further north. Or rather, the Yugoslav resistance that had been found and was willing, being Communist in its leadership, was not acceptable and was not accepted. Meanwhile the Pan-Serb nationalists under General Mihailovic – the chetniks who have now appeared once more – kept to their refusal to fight the enemy. They understandably feared reprisals, but also had their sights on a post-war Pan-Serbian victory which, by standing aside till the Germans were beaten, they hoped that they might win. So Britain, loyal to its alliance with the Yugoslav royal government-in-exile, also stood aside. This could not and did not last. The change came about as a result of the second decisive element in the story – the decryption of enemy signals, whether of top-level Enigma traffic (decrypted as Ultra) or of Abwehr and similar ciphers, which became increasingly available to the Prime Minister and his most senior advisers. This uncontaminable intelligence showed that active resistance in Yugoslavia was all Partisan and would probably remain so. A decision was therefore taken at the end of January 1943 to contact these Partisans. This could be carried out in April and May, and the rest followed of itself. That achievement involved the third decisive element, which was the personal, logistical and wireless-telegraphic services provided by SOE with an impressive success, still largely unrecognised and little noticed by McLynn.

Yet more was needed to complete the enterprise, and it was in providing this that McLynn’s hero, Sir Fitzroy Maclean, takes his rightful place. Apart from minor errors and one big one – diminishing SOE’s chief of staff, George Taylor, to the lowly rank of liaison officer – McLynn has written with a sound and temperate understanding of the issues then in play. Someone was required, once contact with the Partisans was firmly made, who would bring the eye of diplomatic and political experience to the scene; and this someone, as was just as well for the outcome, arrived in the person of a long-boned Highlander whose resolute grasp and control of the essentials of power came to be in no more doubt than his courage, and his courage was never in doubt. Moreover Maclean proved to have wonderful good luck, which is what you have to have on such occasions, and a firm generosity of character.

Formerly a Foreign Office operative (dare one say this of diplomats?) with what McLynn shows were traditional Tory beliefs, and being into the bargain a wartime Tory MP, Maclean deserved and received Churchill’s confidence and then rapidly proved that he knew how to use this advantage to ensure the success of his difficult mission. However late in the day, British-Yugoslav liaison came into capable hands, and would continue to prove its value long after the war itself was over. He has thoroughly warranted a good biography, and here gets one. Not everyone admired him at the time, but it may be that those who failed to admire him were the ones who envied his success but could not have equalled it. Others resented his preference for going straight to the top, which meant the Prime Minister, although in my opinion this was invariably wise. Less wise was his bid for publicity by importing Randolph Churchill and Evelyn Waugh, thus making it possible for Waugh to write a silly book about the war instead of a funny one. Yet who knows? The Partisans thought Randolph’s coming a welcome proof of Winston’s commitment to their cause, while Randolph’s ruderies, Randolph knowing no Serbo-Croat, will not have bothered them; besides, they could be very rude themselves. Maclean’s eye for the main chance, as his biographer sensibly shows it to us, can be seen to have served everyone on our side remarkably well. In this instance the Army – Orme Sargent, in fact, at the FO – got the right Tory into the right place, which was naturally unusual.

There has been a tendency in British and American opinion to suppose that our aid to the Partisans was decisive for their victory. It was nothing of the kind. Tito’s armies had grown out of their own strength and grown mightily. They would have won their war without any outside help, while the option of a non-Communist post-war Yugoslavia was never realistically available once the Partisan main army had survived its most costly battles of early 1943. Yet British supplies of automatics, mortars, high explosive and the like were an increasing factor in ensuring tactical successes once these supplies could become large in size (roughly, after March 1944), while British support was always a strong morale-raiser. This applied especially to the evacuation of many hundreds of Partisan wounded to hospitals in Italy, in which the RAF played a remarkably efficient and unflinching role. One of the makeshift landing strips for the evacuation, known to the codes as ‘Piccadilly Phyllis’, was, for example, only a dozen miles outside the capital city of Belgrade with its many enemy divisions, but to this as to other strips in the mountains our RAF crews flew in as though attending a picnic. Such things were greatly liked.

In all this it can and should be said that Maclean’s tact and self-confidence, qualities which may rather seldom march together, were insistently available at the diplomatic-political level that counted, which was the level of Tito and his closest men, and may have been crucial at several ticklish points in liaison between Tito and Churchill, whose mutual admiration grew increasingly dim as the war neared its end. McLynn is good on all these matters as well as engagingly enthusiastic, but here and there lets himself down by wanting to represent Maclean as some kind of ‘young Lochinvar come out of the West’, whereas, by all the hard evidence (and there is plenty), Maclean’s great strength lay precisely in his perfectly unromantic grip on the locations of power and how to acquire levers to work on them. In this context of punctual practicality it is pleasant to read that today’s scion of Gillian of the Battleaxe (floruit c. 1250) and Laird of Dunconnel is the owner of Highland acres but also, which may be more to the point, the landlord of one of Scotland’s choice hotels. Indeed a fruitful conclusion.

Does it seem worthwhile, now that chaos has ensued in Yugoslavia? Those on our side who survived have generally thought so. For those too late for the occasion there is today the gruesomely instructive spectacle of the chetnik-ustasha alternative which had been on offer while the war was being fought, but which, thanks to Partisan resistance, was averted. This is the alternative that is now in the saddle, at any rate for the time being and perhaps far ahead as well, galloping hellbent for conceivably still worse destinies in chauvinist nationalism. For after the carve-up of Bosnia there will be the prospect of other victims. Macedonia, for example, which between the wars Royal Yugoslavia insisted on naming ‘South Serbia’. Or Kosovo-Metohija with its majority of bitterly resentful Albanians but also its myth-sustaining image for Serbian nationalists. And then there will remain the flaming rivalry, not to use a stronger word, between Greater Serbia (as now being ‘cleansed’) and a frustrated Greater Croatia. And after that God knows what further eruptions of ‘ethnic’ hatred. None of these areas of conflict, or any other like them further east, seems likely to offer usable space for political reconciliation. The outlook by the end of 1992 is, on the contrary, for relapse into military dictatorship for want of any stable civil power to replace the gunmen.

Those in the West who watch all this with an understandable anxiety may therefore care to use the interval to re-examine the credentials of the federalism for which the Partisans fought after 1942. Its leaders might be most dogmatically Stalinist among themselves, but in actual operation, at any rate by 1943, the Partisan movement was marching to a different music, and this was the music, rather than the agitprop, which largely prevailed. That this was true and even had to be true was confirmed, month on month, by the strength with which the fighting brigades held firm against divisive pressures (of tradition, or whatever) as well as a ruthless enemy. What they achieved in war they gradually lost in peace. They did so for a quantity of reasons which still require definitive analysis. One central reason need not be in doubt, however – and this was economic mismanagement, regularly helped on by South Slav hubris, never an abrasiveness in short supply: but, all the same, a mismanagement which the outside world did nothing but make worse. On the contrary, the bankers were again at work, and massive lending all through the Eighties led to Yugoslavia’s foreign indebtedness running constantly at some $20 billion or worse. Out of the attendant consequences came regional rivalries and shortages, corruptions and confusions, dislocations and various breakdowns, and from these evolved what we see now, the xenophobia of despair.

Historians will note a massive irony. Whereas an open-minded liberal-capitalist Western Europe could find it relatively easy to conceive of absorbing a left-wing Eastern Europe, this same Western Europe seems bound to find it difficult, and perhaps impossible, to cope with the chauvinism and racism of what is increasingly on offer from a right-wing Eastern Europe. One may wonder what will happen if and when the sons and daughters of our New Right find alliance with the sons and daughters of the Tudjmans and Milosevics? It may even be that what will worst subvert our liberalism will not be any form of Neo-Nazism as much as a version of the Palaeo-Nazism that fathered the horrors of the past. But perhaps this view is misleadingly pessimistic.

It is not yet clear that internal resistance to Serbian chauvinism, or its partner in Croatia, is altogether suppressed by censorship of the media and by fear; and it may be a fairish bet that crowds of folk in places such as Uzice and Nis and Novi Sad, all absolutely Serbian, would sigh with relief at the political downfall of Milosevic and company. All that region of opinion has become very hard to penetrate, mostly because external reporting has preferred to concentrate on the action stories, and, with one or two exceptions, has been done by reporters who have evidently known precious little about the place and the people, let alone their language. Yet the Serbs are a nation with powerfully democratic attitudes to what is desirable and even good, a people in any case not given to bearing patiently with dictatorship. Those ‘weekend’ chetniks from Montenegro and Serbia who have been chasing into Bosnia to beat up any victims easy to be bullied are against the current of Serbian custom. But meanwhile enormous damage has been done. The chronicle of Travnik proves after all to have a tragic ending, and the whole community of Lutfi’s bar, having outlasted the Ottomans and the Austrians and all manner of Hitlerite devils, is at last laid low by native hands.

Finishing his Chronicle in May 1942, Andric recalls the ‘good victorious silence’ which greeted the retreat of Napoleonic interventions 128 years earlier, and tells how Travnik’s notables gathered in Lutfi’s bar to listen to Hamdi Beg’s conclusions. Hamdi Beg told them that ‘everything now will once again be as it used to be, and by God’s will always was.’ Not this time round. After the ethnic cleansers, Lutfi’s bar will not be opening again. All that old-fashioned civility is gone. The sorrow of its going will be more than Bosnian.