Balkan Lessons

Article excerpt

BEFORE civilization was very old Dubrovnik had already arrived. Epidaurus was then its name and it had been rounded by Argos, himself the son of one of Jupiter's many brief affairs--but on this occasion there had been a departure from precedent: his mother, Niobe, was an inhabitant of the lower world. She was the human daughter of Phoronos the second King of Argos. The child grew up to continue the high emotional tenor of his parents and took to wife Evadne, herself the daughter of a nymph.

With such a start it is not surprising that Dubrovnik has never surrendered her individuality; heir to Greece and to Imperial Rome, sacked by the Slavs in the 7th century she always absorbed her conquerors to rise again. By the 13th century she had become an independent aristocratic republic, the equal to that of Venice. In 1808 Napoleon besieged the city and the women of Dubrovnik refused their husbands a place in their beds. They were not prepared to bear children for them to live as the captives of a French Corporal.

Dubrovnik had not been overly put out by the 1939-45 war. They knew how to manage Italians and had always faced up to keeping a workmanlike arrangement with successive governments in Belgrade. In 1945 about a week after VE day I was winding my way down the mountains from Montenegro. I knew that I must be approaching the city when I started to overtake a string of donkeys each bearing a woman in a blue bress with her head protected from the strong sun by a dazzlingly white coif. Their bearing was regal, they rode side-saddle and managed their mounts with superb precision. In order not to smother them in dust I overtook them slowly which courtesy they acknowledged with graceful-distant aristocratic ease. There was none of that mobbing that the mere sight of a Jeep produced in any other part of newly liberated Jugoslavia. I could but pass on to enter the city with my mind filled by the real beauty of their presence.

The efforts of the Jugoslav Partisan Movement to obliterate the influence of the remaining 'reactionary elements' in the population had not always been well thought out. The 'Popular Authorities' had started to arrest sample members of the former bourgeoisie and then tried to find something of which to accuse them. At that time Jugoslavs were certainly capable of being rough but, in contrast to today, they were then very rarely brutal.

In Dubrovnik the People's Authorities were staging a terrific public trial designed to prove the basic immorality of the former ruling class. Dubrovnik in the past had had an hereditary aristocracy so they picked on the fortyish heir to one of these great families to stand trial for homosexuality. He had never concealed his tastes, he had never collaborated with Germans or Italians. His often outrageous social behaviour had long been accepted, with a certain amused tolerance, as a part of the local scene. For the People's Authority it was exactly this social tolerance that had to be suppressed and in doing this a double objective would be served:-- the full depravity of the former ruling class would be exposed. The People's Authority was not the voice of the people of Dubrovnik, its origins did not spring from the same well of truth in which the locals had been bathing for the past three millenia. Something quite other than the hoped for exposure was very soon to be displayed.

The trial was to be relayed live on the radio and by loudspeakers into the square near the courthouse. The Drzavni Tuzilac, the Public Prosecutor, a minor lawyer who, for careerist reasons, had joined the Party, was preparing for a victory that would propel him to the agitprop summit. Few Marxist public prosecutors have ever had a devoted public following, so the public benches in the court had been filled with the faithful, well trained to know their cues. The Accused was in light coloured clothes with a Byronic open shirt, the Public Prosecutor in a shiny blue suit smudged with tobacco ash and wearing spectacles to help him consult his papers. …