So, that evening in 1934, I lay in bed and looked at my radio fearfully, though it had nothing more to say that was relevant, and later, on the telephone, talked to my husband as one does in times of crisis if one is happily married, asking him questions which one knows quite well neither he nor anyone else can answer and deriving great comfort from what he says. I was really frightened, for all these earlier killings had either hastened doom towards me or prefigured it. If Rudolf had not died, he might have solved the Slav problem of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and restrained its imperialist ambition, and there might have been no war. If Alexander Obrenovich had not been killed, Serbia might never have been strong enough to excite the Empire’s jealousy and fear, and there might have been no war. The killing of Franz Ferdinand was war itself. And the death of Elizabeth had shown me the scourge of the world after the war — Lucheni, Fascism, the rule of the dispossessed class that claims its rights and cannot conceive them save in terms of empty violence, of killing, taking, suppressing.
And now there was another killing. Again it was in the southeast of Europe, where was the source
of all the other deaths. That seemed to me strange, in 1934, because the Slav problem then seemed
to have been satisfactorily settled by the war. The Czechs and the Slovaks had their pleasant
democratic state, which was working well enough except for the complaints of the Sudeten
Germans, who under the Hapsburgs had been pampered with privileges paid for by their Slav
neighbors. The Slovenes and the Croats and the Dalmatians and the Montenegrins were now
united in the kingdom of the South Slavs, which is what ‘Yugoslavia’ means; and though the
Slovenes and Croats and Dalmatians were separated in spirit from the Serbs by their Catholicism,
and the Montenegrins hankered after their lost independence, the State had seemed to be finding its
balance. But here was another murder, another threat that man was going to deliver himself up to
pain, was going to serve death instead of life.
A few days later my husband told me that he had seen a news film which had shown with
extraordinary detail the actual death of the King of Yugoslavia, and as soon as I could leave the
nursing home I went and saw it. I had to go to a private projection room, for by that time it had
been withdrawn from the ordinary cinemas, and I took the opportunity to have it run over several
times, while I peered at it like an old woman reading the tea leaves in her cup. First there was the
Yugoslavian warship sliding into the harbor of Marseille, which I know very well. Behind it was
that vast suspension bridge which always troubles me because it reminds me that in this
mechanized age I am as little unable to understand my environment as any primitive woman who
thinks that a waterfall is inhabited by a spirit, and indeed less so, for her opinion might, from a
poetical point of view, be correct. I know enough to be aware that this bridge cannot have been
spun by a vast steel spider out of its entrails, but no other explanation seems to me as plausible,
and I have not the faintest notion of its use. But the man who comes down the gangway of the ship
and travels on the tender to the quay, him I can understand, for he is something that is not new.
Always the people have had the idea of the leader, and sometimes a man is born who embodies
His face is sucked too close to the bone by sickness to be tranquil or even handsome, and it would
at any time have suggested a dry pedantry, unnatural in a man not far advanced in the forties. But
he looks like a great man, which is not to say that he is a good man or a wise man, but that he has
that historic quality which comes from intense concentration on an important subject. What he is
thinking of is noble, to judge from the homage he pays it with his eyes, and it governs him
entirely. He does not relapse into it when the other world fails to interest him; rather does he
relapse into noticing what is about him when for a moment his interior communion fails him. But
he is not abstracted; he is paying due respect to the meeting between France and Yugoslavia.
Indeed he is bringing to the official occasion a naive earnestness. When Monsieur Barthou, the
French Foreign Minister, comes and greets him, it is as if a jolly priest, fully at ease in his orders,
stood before the altar beside a tortured mystical layman. Sometimes, too, he shows by a turn of the
head, by a dilation of the pinched nostrils, that some delightful aspect
of the scene has pleased him.
About all his reactions there is that jerky quickness which comes of long vigilance. It was natural.
He had been a soldier from boyhood, and since the Great War he had perpetually been threatened
with death from within, by tuberculosis, and with death from without, by assassination at the hand
of Croats or Macedonians who wanted independence instead of union with Serbia. But it is not fear
that is his preoccupation. That, certainly, is Yugoslavia.
Now King Alexander is driving down the familiar streets, curiously unguarded, in a curiously
antique car. It can be seen from his attempt to make his stiff hand supple, from a careless flash of
his careful black eyes, that he is taking the cheers of the crowd with a childish seriousness; it is
touching, like a girl’s putting full faith in the compliments that are paid to her at a ball. Then his
preoccupation veils his brows. He is thinking of Yugoslavia again. Then the camera leaves him. It
recedes. The sound track records a change, a swelling astonishment, in the voice of the crowd. We
see a man jumping on the footboard of the car, a gendarme swinging a sword, a revolver in the
hand of another, a straw hat lying on the ground, a crowd that jumps up and down, up and down,
smashing something flat with its arms, kicking something flat with its feet, till there is seen on the
pavement a pulp covered with garments. A lad in a sweater dodges before his captors, his defiant
face unmarked by fear, although his body expresses the very last extreme of fear by a creeping,
writhing motion. A view of the whole street shows people dashed about as by a tangible wind of
The camera returns to the car and we see the King. He is lying almost flat on his back on the seat,
and he is as I was after the anaesthetic. He does not know that anything has happened; he is still
half-rooted in the pleasure of his own nostalgia. He might be asking, ‘Et en quelle saison
Revoiray-je le clos de ma pauvre maison, Qui m’est une province et beaucoup d’avantage?’ It is
certain that he is dying, because he is the centre of a miraculous manifestation which would not
happen unless the living had been shocked out of their reserve by the presence of death.
Innumerable hands are caressing him. Hands are coming from everywhere, over the back of the
car, over the sides, through the windows, to caress the dying King, and they are supremely kind.
They are far kinder than faces can be, for faces are Marthas burdened with many cares because of
their close connection with the mind, but these hands express the mindless sympathy of living
flesh for flesh that is about to die, the pure physical basis for pity. They are men’s hands, but they
move tenderly as the hands of women fondling their babies; they stroke his cheek as if they were
washing it with kindness. Suddenly his nostalgia goes from him. His pedantry relaxes. He is at
peace; he need not guard against death any more.
I could not understand this event, no matter how often I saw this picture. I knew, of course, how
and why the murder had happened. Lucheni has got on well in the world. When he killed Elizabeth
over forty years ago, he had to do his own work in the world; he had to travel humbly about
Switzerland in search of his victims; he had but one little two-edged dagger as tool for his crime,
and he had to pay the penalty. But now Lucheni is Mussolini, and the improvement in his
circumstances can be measured by the increase in the magnitude of his crime. In Elizabeth the
insecure and traditionless town dweller struck down the symbol of power, but the modern
representative has struck down power itself and degraded its essence. His offense is not that he has
virtually deposed his king, for kings and presidents who cannot hold their office lose thereby the
title to their kingdoms and republics. His offense is that he made himself dictator without binding
himself by any of the contractual obligations which civilized man has imposed on his rulers in all
creditable phases of history and which give power a soul to be saved. This cancellation of process
in government leaves it an empty violence that must perpetually and at any cost outdo itself, for it
has no alternative idea and hence no alternative activity. This aggressiveness leads obviously to the
establishment of immense armed forces, and furtively to incessant experimentation with methods
of injuring the outer world other than the traditional procedure of warfare.
Violence was, indeed, all I knew of the Balkans — all I knew of the South Slavs. I derived the
knowledge from memories of my earliest interest in liberalism, of leaves fallen from this jungle, of
pamphlets tied up with string, in the dustiest corners of junkshops, and later from the prejudices of
the French, who use the word Balkan as a term of abuse, meaning a rastaquouere type of
barbarian. In Paris, awakened in a hotel bedroom by the insufficiently private life of my neighbors,
I have heard the sound of three slashing slaps and a woman’s voice crying through sobs, ‘Balkan!
Balkan!’ In Nice, as I sat eating langouste outside a little restaurant down by the harbor, there were
some shots, a sailor lurched out of the next-door bar, and the proprietress ran after him, shouting,
‘Balkan! Balkan!’ He had emptied his revolver into the mirror behind the bar. And now I was faced
with the immense nobility of the King in the film, who was certainly Balkan, Balkan, but who met
violence with an imaginative realization which is its very opposite, which absorbs it into the
experience it aims at destroying.
But I must have been wholly mistaken in my acceptance of the popular legend regarding the
Balkans, for if the South Slavs had been truly violent they would not have been hated first by the
Austrians, who worshiped violence in an imperialist form, and later by the Fascists, who worship
violence in a totalitarian form. Yet it was impossible to think of the Balkans for one moment as
gentle and lamblike, for assuredly Alexander and Draga Obrenovich and Franz Ferdinand and his
wife had none of them died in their beds. I had to admit that I quite simply and flatly knew nothing
at all about the southeastern corner of Europe; and since there proceeds steadily from that place a
stream of events which are a source of danger to me, which indeed for four years threatened my
safety and during that time deprived me forever of many benefits, that is to say I know nothing of
my own destiny.
That is a calamity. Pascal wrote: ‘Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a
thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water,
suffices to kill him. But if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that
which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over
him; the universe knows nothing of this.’
In these words he writes the sole prescription for a distinguished humanity. We must learn to
know the nature of the advantage which the universe has over us, which in my case seems to lie in
the Balkan Peninsula. It was only two or three days distant, yet I had never troubled to go that short
journey which might explain to me how I shall die, and why. While I was marveling at my inertia,
I was asked to go to Yugoslavia to give some lectures in different towns before universities and
English Clubs, and this I did in the spring of 1936.