Under the Ustasha
- Sarajevo, 1941-45: Muslims, Christians and Jews in Hitler’s Europe by Emily Greble
Cornell, 276 pp, £21.50, February 2011, ISBN 978 0 8014 4921 5
I last flew into Sarajevo on 28 June 1994. The besieged city was momentarily quiet. Forces loyal to Milosevic and Karadzic looked down from the hills, but a demilitarisation agreement was holding firm. On the drive from the airport, I shared a ride with an Austrian journalist, in town because it was 80 years to the day since Archduke Franz Ferdinand had been shot. ‘What do people think of Gavrilo Princip now?’ she asked the driver. ‘That terrorist,’ he replied. A couple of days later, a friend sneaked me into the Unprofor headquarters in a villa in the centre of town. General Michael Rose was away in Pale, we were told, negotiating with the Serbs. We were shown into a bedroom, now used as Rose’s private office. A Royal Marine sat back in the general’s chair, feet on the desk, his head hidden behind a thick book. The book was wrapped in brown paper with a sticker on it that said: ‘SECRET. For MOD use only.’ ‘It’s all in here,’ he said as he put it down. It was the Penguin edition of Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.
For a vast and often unreadable book, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon was read by a lot of people at the time. Unless you were willing to plough through huge volumes on workers’ self-management, the rise and fall of the non-aligned movement or tendentious biographies of Tito, there wasn’t much to read about Yugoslavia. Class, not ethnicity, was what most academics had been interested in during the Cold War, but now nationalism was the only thing anyone cared about. That was the subject of West’s book, leavened with her meditations on the Western soul, the Man-Woman problem and the state of Europe. She was emphatic in her labelling of the country’s different groups: Serbs were heroic; Muslims were pleasure-loving Orientals, but with blue eyes and blond hair. Sarajevo, which she rather liked, was a hedonistic backwater. It was a fatalistic vision that suited the hand-wringing, do-nothing policy of the UN Security Council. Indeed, Clinton’s Bosnia policy was said to be influenced by West’s views, as channelled through his bedtime reading of Robert Kaplan’s more recent travelogue, Balkan Ghosts.
A counter-narrative soon surfaced from the advocates of intervention. They argued that Bosnia, and especially Sarajevo, was not the problem but the solution: a multi-confessional, multicultural haven of tolerance and civility that represented everything the West professed to stand for. That the national pride of the Serbs, which West had so admired, was what had got us into this mess. That the Serbs were not heroic defenders of Christian values but plotters of ethnic cleansing. Susan Sontag and Bernard-Henri Lévy felt it their duty to visit Sarajevo and publicise its plight. It was, as Sontag put it, the Spanish Civil War for her generation. Was this version any closer to reality than West’s? What the Victorians called the Eastern Question had once been central to diplomatic history, but the subject had petered out during the Cold War. The Yugoslav wars have brought it back to life, and in this superbly researched monograph Emily Greble tackles the issues raised by West head-on.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.