l i t e r a r y  p e r s p e c t i v e  

c h r i s  a g e e 




Hubert Butler (1900-1991), the last late scion of the Irish Literary Revival, is surely one of the great essayists in English of the 20th century. Only over the last decade and a half, however, have his essays been collected and published, in Ireland, first with ESCAPE FROM THE ANTHILL (1985),then THE CHILDREN OF DRANCY (1988), GRANDMOTHER AND WOLFE TONE (1990), and IN THE LAND OF NOD (1996). The original appearance of his writings is confined almost completely to Irish periodicals, many of them obscure. For this reason his corpus of a hundred or so essays, including magisterial pieces on the Balkans and Mitteleuropa, has only recently come before a large readership in the English-speaking world, quickly mustering acclaim. Equally astonishing is the fact that, despite the historical importance of his writing on the Balkans (he spoke fluently what used to be called Serbo-Croat, having lived in the region in the mid-thirties), until recently none of it had ever appeared in the lands of the former Yugoslavia.

Not only is Butler a superb prose stylist, he is also one of those very rare writers, like George Orwell or Alexander Solzhenitsyn or Albert Camus, for whom the source of his inspiration is what might be termed the ethical imagination. His palette is narrow yet profound: he writes out of a compact but interrelated set of preoccupations that over the course of his life he elaborated into a unique terrain of historical, cultural, religious and philosophical reflection. A true son of the New Testament and the classics, of the Reformation and the Enlightenment, he writes with a modern dissident sensibility that is profoundly at odds with the civilizational grain of our centripetal century. The crux of his worldview is a championing of the small-scale over the colossal, the parish over “the global village,” the intimate community over the mighty enterprises of state-nation-religion, the solitary spirit over the metropolitan “centers of culture” — the ant, in short, over the anthill. He is, in fact, an “artistic philosopher” of the various meshed forms of human relations — local, regional, national, continental, global: arguing from the start that our century’s human energy and focus must be shifted back to the first two of those adjectives, whose vitality sustains the health of the rest.

Having come to maturity when the Russian, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires disintegrated, and the British world imperium began to unravel in Ireland, he was deeply alert to the complex, ambiguous and pan-European phenomena often blithely described by that single rubric nationalism. Furthermore, as a member of the Protestant minority and steeped in the religious history of the island, where since the 17th century the great schism of Western Christendom has contended and co-existed, he had an intuitive feel for the complexities of the Yugoslav confluence of Islam, Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Of the Irish-Yugoslav parallel he himself remarked: “So even when these essays appear to be about Russia or Greece or Yugoslavia, they are really about Ireland.”[1] In his own personal lexicon, nationalism was a positive and inclusive concept, the love of one’s country and all its inhabitants — defined thus when speaking of an early Irish nationalist: “He would have said that a country belongs to the people who were born in it and intend to die there and who make its welfare their chief concern.”[2] It was racialism — the decay of nationalism into chauvinism and exclusiveness — that he saw as the grave and abiding danger. Perhaps no modern writer has enunciated this essential distinction with greater subtlety, and it speaks poignantly not only to the “Aeschylean tragedy” that has overtaken Bosnia, but also to the spirit that sustained the defense of Sarajevo, undoubtedly the Warsaw of our time.



Butler’s oeuvre is the definitive confirmation that the seam of commonality between Ireland and the lands of the former Yugoslavia is a rich and important one. In all, twenty-six of his published essays, about a quarter of his work, deal in varying degrees with the former Yugoslavia, Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania. Of these, fourteen are on Yugoslavia and another six partly so. Moreover, seven of the essays devoted to Yugoslavia are among his greatest. In these, his overarching leitmotif is the corruption of Christianity by ecclesiastical and/or state authority.

The central historical example is the genocide unleashed in Croatia by the policy of forcible conversion endorsed by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and executed by the Ustashe regime of the Second World War; “the most bloodthirsty religio-racial crusade in history,” as he puts it, “far surpassing anything achieved by Cromwell or the Spanish Inquisitors.”[3] Cumulatively, the great Yugoslav septet is surely the most devastating critique of the Church’s collaboration with Balkan fascism ever to have appeared in English; and all the more powerful for the fact that he clearly loves Croatia and is writing in the spirit of Christianity, albeit a rather heterodox and secular Christianity that declines obeisance to any credo. It was, of course, his determination to speak the truth about the Croatian genocide that would lead to the Nuncio controversy in 1952[4]; to the subsequent furore and opprobrium in Kilkenny and further afield; and to his eventual removal from the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, which he had revived eight years before.

As Joseph Brodsky suggests in his Afterward to the posthumous fourth volume, Butler’s work on Central Europe and Yugoslavia may be his most important; for in it he delineates, with a virtuoso mix of wit and ire, “ the dirty grey” of a surpassingly violent century. It is a great pity he died just before the destruction of Yugoslavia and the sacking of Bosnia; not only did he speak the language, but he had lived in Yugoslavia for three years in the mid-thirties. He had crisscrossed all six constituent nations — Slovenia and Croatia in the north and west, Bosnia in the center, Serbia in the north and east, Montenegro and Macedonia in the southeast — and lived for longer spells in Zagreb, Belgrade, Dubrovnik, and further north on the Dalmatian coast. His Yugoslav work is extraordinary for the detail and rigor of his knowledge of the rich patchwork of cultural geography; it abounds in observations that become prescient and premonitory in retrospect. He was writing right up to his death; and had health permitted, it is difficult to imagine him not taking up Bosnia’s tragedy, and the new variations on his old themes presented by the crimes of Karadzic, Milosevic, and Tudjman.

Yet, ironically, until very recently Butler was completely unknown in the region that figures so prominently in his life and work. The first and only of his essays to be translated into Bosnian, Croatian, or Serbian is one of his greatest, “Mr Pfeffer of Sarajevo,” an account of the trial of the assassins of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that is also a parable about the death of Balkan liberalism in the interwar period. I included it in the Irish issue I edited for the Sarajevo journal Zidne Novine.[5] This issue appeared a little over a year after the end of the Bosnian war, and was the result of a trip I made to the devastated capital in March 1996.

The essay itself, published in 1956, ends with an Epilogue, whose three pages are, for me, among Butler’s most moving. In it, he makes his classic distinction between nationalism and racialism, then turns to the modern genealogy of what Churchill once termed “the disentanglement of populations,” but what we would now call “ethnic cleansing.”  “It was because nationalism lacked a philosophy,” he writes,


that in the early twenties it began to decay and racialism took its place. The first sign of this degeneration came in 1923, when by the Treaty of Lausanne in exchange for Turks from Europe over a million Greeks were moved from the coast of Asia Minor, where they had lived for three thousand years. This ghastly crime was committed so efficiently under the auspices of the League of Nations that it won universal applause. ...The old view that men should enjoy equal rights in the land of their birth began to seem hopelessly out of date, and soon Hitler and Mussolini and Stalin were eliminating causes of friction by large and admirably organized population exchanges in the Tyrol and the Baltic States….[6]


And a few paragraphs later Butler ends with this peroration:


When we recall such gigantic endeavours, scientifically conducted, to sort out the old ragbag of nations of 1918 into homogeneous states, how petty and parochial seem the dreams of the Sarajevo conspirators, and the poor old League of Nations with its condominiums and Free Cities and minority rights! And how more than dead are Davis and Herder and their romantic insistence on Homeland and Nationhood! One has to listen hard to catch the least echo of that extinct ideology. Yet here is one from the most improbably source of all, from Germany, which once led the world in the social science of Distentanglement. It comes from the Exiles’ Charter, an appeal for Heimatrecht published on behalf of the 7,500,000 German refugees from the East.

God placed men in their homes. To drive men out of their homes spells spiritual death. We have experienced this fate. Hence we feel called upon to demand that the right to one’s home be recognised as one of the basic rights given by God to man.[7]


Later I was told that Butler’s essay had made a deep impression on its Bosnian readership. Sarajevo, of course, is now jammed with “the cleansed,” a city of refugees where countrywomen in pantaloons jostle against dispossessed Muslim professionals from Priejdor and Banja Luka. With this apt parable, Butler the literary revenant had leapt the language barrier and crossed in print into the Slav lands in which he had once sojourned in life.

Nor is that quite the end of the story. There may be a sequel.

Last October I returned to Sarajevo for the Bosnian launch of the anthology I had edited. On the plane from Vienna, flicking through the complimentary paper, I came across an astonishing item. I read that during his current Croatian visit, the Pope would beatify Archbishop Stepinac. Stepinac was the Catholic primate of Croatia during the Ustashe genocide. Conservatively, it is estimated that this huge annex to the Nazi holocaust saw the massacre of several hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews and Gypsies. The whole tale of Stepinac’s naïve collaboration is, of course, spelt out by Butler. At best, Stepinac had done little to vitiate the evil whose climate he had helped to cultivate. How had the Pope made such a grievous misreading of the Croatian crusade, that would one day find its Serb döppelganger from Vukovar to Srebrenica to Kosova?

As it happened, I had in my bags all four volumes of Butler’s essays. I had brought them because I hoped to finalize discussions about an edition of his Balkan work. Somewhere over Slovenia’s Julian Alps, I suddenly realized that Butler’s work was still dynamite. What would happen if the edition appeared in Croatia, where Stepinac is still widely revered, even by the intelligentsia, as saintly and patriotic? Nowadays there are some uncomfortable religious parallels between ‘Fifties Ireland and post-Communist Croatia, to say nothing of the Croatian statelet within Bosnia, where Medjugore is. When this edition of Balkan essays appears, Butler may prove as challenging there as he once was here.




Butler’s first visit to the Balkans was in 1928, to Greece. Making his way back to Ireland from a sojourn in Egypt and a stop-over in Cyprus, he toured the Peloponnese  with the Irish writer Monk Gibbon. Butler had had a classical education, first at Charterhouse, then at St John’s, Oxford, where his scholarship gave him the sobriquet Senior Classical Scholar. But he became disenchanted with classics at Oxford, and took a third in 1922. In “Return to Hellas” (1961), a celebration of the small-scale simplicity of Greek civilization as well as a caution against the gigantism of modern life, he describes the trip thus:


When I was young, but not young enough, I walked through the Peloponnese  with a mule. It took, I think, thirteen hours from Andritsaena to the ferry across the Alphaeus. I had never enjoyed anything so much, but I felt very angry that my education had been back to front. Here was the jam at last after I had stuffed myself to repletion with dry bread. Had I known all this before, the fragrance of the myrtle and mule-droppings, the memory of roast sucking-pig and retsina, would have reconciled me to knowledge, which till then had flowed in the contrary direction to my curiosity. . . . Why did I never guess that in a meadow at Olympia, ringed with asphodel and narcissus, the Hermes of Praxiteles would shed like a scab of an old wound its frowsy kinship with a plaster cast in the Science Buildings at Charterhouse?[8]


After matriculation, Butler in the 1920s and ‘30s was what we might term today a forerunner of the backpacking hippie. (Minus the long hair and shambolic clothing and intemperate habits; and grafted onto an ideal of the country scholar modeled on Graves and Prim, founders of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society.) Apart from his two years of gainful employment with the Irish County Libraries in the early twenties, when he worked in Ballymena, Coleraine, and Portstewart, he seems to have applied himself to having no career.

In the mid-twenties, there was a term of teaching in London and a brief tutoring spell in Germany. Nineteen twenty-seven sees a few months of English-teaching in Egypt on the heels of travel in Italy and followed by the sojourn in the Peloponnese. In 1929 he is married to Susan Margaret Guthrie, called Peggy, the sister of the director and playwright Tyrone Guthrie, and they spend their honeymoon in Riga, Latvia, having been denied entrance to the Soviet Union.[9] In the spring of 1932, Butler visits Moscow; a few months later, he returns to Russia with Peggy, and they take a boat trip down the Volga to Leningrad. His wife returns home, but Butler stays on for a few months of teaching English in Leningrad, at the beginning of the Red Terror; this stay is described in his masterpiece “Peter’s Window.” In-between these flits and sojourns, his main bases are in West London and at the Guthrie Big House at Annaghmakerrig, Co. Monaghan. There is some piecemeal tutoring in London and the upkeep of the garden and grounds of Annaghmakerrig. It is clear that the agenda he is working to, the star he is following, is anything but conventional.

By the end of Auden’s “low, dishonest decade,” he is back in Austria after the Anschluss, working for the Quakers in order to expedite the escape of Jews in the grim Vienna of 1938-39. Only in 1941, when his father dies and he inherits Maidenhall in Bennettsbridge, does this period of wanderlust come to a close, and with it the peripatetic life of his twenties and thirties. Although punctuated by trips to Spain, Russia, China, Israel, and America, among other destinations, the rest of his life will be spent in Kilkenny.

But first, of course, there were the three years in Yugoslavia, from autumn 1934 to summer 1937. They are the most important of all his travels, and yet this chapter of his life remains quite blank. Yugoslavia, he would later write, “is the foreign country I know best” (his context suggests that the statement includes England).[10] Beyond the truism that everything in life is decisive, his time in the Slav Balkans has a seminal place in his writing and his life. It results, I think, in his greatest work and tinges with a bifocal perspective his whole intellectual approach to Ireland. It would lead two decades hence to the unpleasantness of the Nuncio incident.

But Butler and his wife are gone, and with them, a full and vivid account of their time in Yugoslavia. As with the work, so with the life; once again Butler seems a step or two ahead of us, and those who might have wanted to draw more out of them have been wrong-footed by death. Whereas his literary reputation is no longer in danger of vanishing into the Lethe of oblivion, much of the bare outline of his life in those years has. (When I think of my own time as a student in Provence, between school and university, I realize on what a slim thread the seeming solidity of memory hangs. Without me, or the single Swedish friend of that period, almost nothing of my life there could be reconstructed.)

I am afraid such a loss is now partly the case with Butler’s time in the Balkans. There are some letters and papers, and snippets of recollection by others. Mainly, there is the Balkan work. Even here, however, firm autobiography is rather thin, as it is in most of his work, with the exception of those pieces whose intention is purely personal. Yet, somehow, the overall effect of the Balkan writing is deeply autobiographical, in a way that is less the case with much of the rest of his work. What it lacks in external incident it makes up for with a rich narrative of ideas and experience, through which his time in Yugoslavia vividly gusts. There is almost no discussion of literature and letters, as exists in so much of his corpus; and the tremendous focus is on the interplay between the individual, cultural background and contemporary history. This distilled intellectual narrative is the special autobiographical brandy to be tapped from the seemingly impersonal cask of his writing on the Balkans.

Sometime in 1934, Butler obtained a travelling scholarship for Yugoslavia from the School of Slavonic Studies in London; it was this that helped fund the three years. Or was it simply a case of new opportunity for travel presenting itself? It would seem he had not passed through the country previously, though he had skirted it in Austria. Very likely, his interest in Russia had something to do with it. This interest had been aroused by a distant cousin, Willie de Burgh, a philosopher at Reading University, with whom he stayed just after Charterhouse, when events in Russia were reverberating through the zeitgeist. A gifted linguist, Butler took up Russian sometime in the twenties; by the end of the decade he was fluent enough to begin translating Leonid Leonov’s bulky novel, THE THIEF, and Chekhov’s play The Cherry Orchard. They were published, respectively, in 1931 and 1934; and the play was produced that same year by his brother-in-law, Tyrone Guthrie, at the Old Vic. A half-century later, Joseph Brodsky would judge it the best translation of that play ever to appear in English.

Note the telling debut: Butler is a writer who begins with the East, not with Ireland. This is often overlooked in the effort to shoehorn him into one of the fashionable Irish literary agendas; for instance, that of “the Protestant imagination.” But such a categorical imperative can get woolly once outside Irish airspace, as Butler was so often in the interwar period. In fact, Butler is one of a distinguished line of Irish writers – such as Shaw, Joyce, Beckett, Aidan Higgins, Harry Clifton – whose sense of Irishness has been shaped by long periods of foreign residence, and so inflected by a cosmopolitanism that eludes, in part, the insular categories. Incidentally, Joyce lived in Trieste, then a part of Austria-Hungary, when it was as much a Slav city as an Italian one; and he often uses bits of Italo-Slovene dialect in his letters. In a like vein, Brodsky suggests, “Butler was interested in this border-line zone, with its fusion of Latin and Slavic cultures, presumably because he sense in their interplay the future of European civilisation.”[11]

“Serbo-Croat” is closely related to Russian; and one is attracted to the thought that, with his interest in both Greece and Russia, the South Slav lands were a natural choice. From Istria to Kotor, the long karst littoral of Croatia and Montenegro, with its thousand-plus islands, is where the Slav world meets the warm oceans. Moreover, then as now, the field of Slavonic studies is a small one, and through some such contact he may have come across the travelling scholarship.

Equally, it may have been from a Yugoslav friend, or friends, that Butler gleaned further curiosity about the region, after some initial contact with Serbs and Croats at Oxford. There are several candidates, but the most likely is Dr. Milan urcin.[12] He crops up in several essays and was the source of Butler’s account of Mr. Pfeffer, the judge at the trial of the Sarajevo assassins. In the introduction to ESCAPE FROM THE ANTHILL, Butler writes:


Three years after I returned from Russia I went to teach in Zagreb in the Anglo-American-Yugoslav Society. It had been founded by my friend, Dr Milan Churchin, the editor of Nova Europa, the leading liberal journal of Central Europe, and by Dr Georgievic, the Orthodox Bishop of Dalmatia. I also had a small scholarship from the School of Slavonic Studies in London.[13]


He does not quite say that urcin was a friend before his arrival. However, in a 1946 essay, “Two Faces of Postwar Yugoslavia,” he makes this aside about the famous Dalmatian sculptor Mestrovi: “Mestrovitch was at that time in America but his house was being looked after by an old friend of mine, Dr Milan Churchin. With the problems of Serbia and Croatia in mind, he had visited Ulster.”[14]

The last remark suggests a further possible source of early interest in Yugoslavia. Had Butler got attuned to the depth of Irish-Balkan parallel through personal contact? It seems a reasonable supposition.

Butler arrived in Zagreb on 9 October 1934, having traveled by way of Vienna, Budapest and Belgrade. Zagreb seems to have been his main base during the three years. he was accompanied by his wife, and the unpublished correspondence suggests regular addresses in both Zagreb and Belgrade; it would appear they had two flats permanently at their disposal. Several Zagreb friends with whom Butler would later stay in touch appear in the correspondence; one was their mentor Dr urcin. But the correspondence also suggests that they spent considerable periods in Dubrovnik and Ploce, a small Dalmatian town at the mouth of the Neretva River, surrounded by strip-fields and a moonscape of low Adriatic sierra. At some point Peggy returned to Ireland to give birth to their only child, Julia; and when she and the child returned, they all stayed in Belgrade, where they had a number of friends in the English-speaking legations. At least one full winter was spent in a former monastery in Dubrovnik overlooking the sea, not far from the walled citadel of fountains and palaces, where Julia would play. Another letterhead tells us he stayed for a while in Pale, near Sarajevo, from where Karadzic would one day direct the siege of the Bosnian capital.

The most fascinating glimpse the correspondence gives us is of their stay in Ploce, sometime in 1936 or 1937. It was here, it would seem, that Butler first saw at close quarters the shadow of Hitler; there are many allusions to Jewish refugee friends or acquaintances staying in the area. An earlier Belgrade letter reads: “Gertrude has now discovered her name is Stern and that she has an Aryan nose and is dreadfully worried about this, and I’m afraid won’t last.”  Back in Dubrovnik he runs into Rebecca West and husband, and tosses off this classic:  “They were motoring via Mostar and Sarajevo to Belgrade and so they took me out of Orasac and had some wine with me on the way. It was a fearful day, pouring rain, so they must have had a disappointing drive. She, like so many others, is writing a book about Jugoslavia or rather she says ‘Me in Jugoslavia’.”[15] In fact, disguised as an Englishman, Butler appears in this novel, BLACK LAMB, GREY FALCON, now a bible for Balkan no-nothings.



The adjective in “travelling scholarship” turns out to be a significant clue to Butler’s time in the country. True to proto-Beat form, he appears to have been on the road for a good deal of the three years. This can be surmised from his discussion, in “The Barriers” (1941), of the vitality of small provincial clubs and readings rooms, but he confirms his ingenious troubadour procedure in an unpublished (1949) article for Peace News:


When I was in Yugoslavia over a dozen years ago I had a travelling scholarship which enabled me to go round the country. In the days before the Iron Curtain to be foreign was, at the start, an asset, and when I arrived in some town of Bosnia or Macedonia I was made to feel welcome. There was usually a little club presided over by someone who had travelled abroad, and I was entertained….[16]


No wonder he knew the country well.

Two essays treat highlights of his time there. In the spring of 1937 he traveled from Belgrade to Montenegro to witness the elaborate ritual of the izmirenje, or reconciliation ceremony, by which blood feuds were traditionally settled in the patriarchal peasant societies of the South Balkans. The experience is recounted in “The Last Izmirenje(1947), a parable about an order of justice that took forgiveness instead of punishment as the true atonement for crime. And in his very early essay “In Dalmatia” (1937), a distillation of his travels through the archipelago and along the littoral, something of the emotional enchantment of those years is set in amber. It has the fresh-minted feeling of recent experience and conveys the delight and exuberance that must have accompanied him on his wanderings. It gives us a peaceful background to the somber meditations on what would later transpire “in the plains of Slavonia and the wild mountains of Bosnia.”[17]

All this puts in the round Butler’s one autobiographical overview of the Balkan years, given in his Introduction to the first volume. Here is most of it:


The day we arrived in Zagreb, 9 October 1934, news had just come that King Alexander, a Serb, had, with Bathou the French Foreign Minister, been assassinated in Marseilles by agents of the Croat separatist leader, Pavelitch. Zagreb was plunged in well-organized mourning with portraits of the king surrounded by black crape in the shop windows and black bows on the funnels of the railway engines. Two days later the king’s body arrived from Split, where it had been shipped from Marseilles, on its way to Belgrade. It lay for a couple of hours, surrounded by pot-plants, in the first-class waiting room at the station, where it was visited by mile-long processions. One of those who prayed beside the royal coffin was Archbishop Bauer, accompanied by his Auxiliary Monsignor Stepinac.

During our time in Yugoslavia the shadow of the assassination hung over the whole country. Hitler had come to power in Germany and Jewish refugees were flocking to the Dalmatian coast. In Italy and Hungary, Pavelitch and his helper, Artukovitch, were training the army of Croat rebels who were, in 1941, to sweep into Yugoslavia with the Nazis and proclaim the Independent State of Croatia.

And yet my recollections are of peace and beauty. There was almost no traffic in Yelachitch Trg, the central square. Fat amethyst pigeons strutted through the market stalls looking for pickings and panicking when the church bells rang. The scent of mimosa and wood-smoke, holy candles and freshly tanned leather drowned the faint whiff of petrol. On Sunday, we walked up Slijeme Mountain, where wild cyclamen and hellebore grew through beech woods. In our room I rooted oleander cuttings in bottles between the double windows. And when my pupils were on holiday I wrote down the story of Mr Pfeffer.

Zagreb, in the thirties, was a very cultivated little town; it had an opera house and theatres, and there were still remnants of an Austrianized aristocracy in the leafy suburbs. Dalmatia was Italianate and Belgrade was still largely Turkish in character. When one went south and penetrated Montenegro, one seemed to pass from our cruel, complicated century to an earlier one, just as cruel, where each man was responsible to his neighbours for his crimes and where organised twentieth century barbarity had not yet emerged. . . .[18]


Turning to the period after his departure, he goes on:


The war came and Yugoslavia was carved up by Germany and her allies. Croatia, which had not resisted the Nazis, was rewarded with her Independent State under the rule of Pavelitch, King Alexander’s convicted murderer.

Then in Zagreb an Aeschylean tragedy was enacted. The same young priest who had stood beside the coffin of his murdered king, reappeared before his countrymen as Archbishop at the right hand of his king’s assassin, helpless in the face of Pavelitch’s resolve to exterminate the Orthodox by expulsion, massacre or forced conversion. Unhappy but icily correct, Stepinac considered himself to be the servant of a power that is higher than the king or his murderer, and one that has rules for every occasion. His conscience was clear.[19]


But Butler’s conscience was unsettled. Sensing the scale of the cataclysm that had befallen Croatia, he returned to Zagreb in June 1947 for part of the summer. He saw some old friends, but also headed to the Central Library. He picks up the thread: what he found made “the heart stand still”[20]:


When I was in Zagreb I spent several days in the public library looking up the old files of the newspapers that were issued in the occupation period, particularly the Church papers. I wanted to see what resistance, if any, was made by organised Christianity to the ruthless militarism of Pavelitch, the Croat national leader, and his German and Italian patrons; I am afraid the results were disheartening. I did not expect to find outspoken criticism or condemnation in the Church papers because, if it had been published, the papers would certainly have been suppressed. But I was wholly unprepared for the gush of hysterical adulation which was poured forth by almost all the leading clergy upon Pavelitch, who was probably the vilest of all war criminals. He was their saviour against Bolshevism, their champion against the Eastern barbarian and heretic, the Serb; he was restorer of their nation and the Christian faith, a veritable hero of olden time. As I believe that the Christian idiom is still the best in which peace and goodwill can be preached, I found this profoundly disturbing….[21]


Recollections of “the moment in the library” appear in seven of his essays, and the research done there permeates several others. It is as central to his work as the Nuncio controversy would be to his life. One might say it was the ethical equivalent of Proust’s moment before the madeleine. Each time he returns to it, it is with some new mood or poignant twist.

It is for another occasion to rehearse Butler’s J’accuse, his meticulous and psychologically subtle portrait of Stepinac. But its gist can be gathered from the first and the last appearance of the theme in his writing. During the same 1946 visit, Butler met, in Zagreb, Father Chok, an Orthodox priest who during the war ministered in “the wild district of Lika,” near the Bosnian border, where there were large communities of Catholic and Orthodox. The horror of the priest’s tale is insinuated with Swiftian understatement:


In the Lika the parishes are sometimes Orthodox, sometimes Catholic, and Father Chok found himself between two large Catholic communities whose priests were Father Mober and Father Mimica. Fortunately for him Father Mimica, the nearer of his two neighbors, was friendly and kind, while Father Mober, who was not, was busy with the affairs of another Orthodox parish, Shtikada. One day, after the government had announced its programme for the conversion of the Orthodox in Croatia, Father Mober arrived by car in Shtikada and ordered the villagers to assemble at the marsh where the ceremony of conversion would take place. He explained that in this way they would escape being killed. (emphasis added)[22]


Assembled in the unusual venue of a marsh, by a priest under the jurisdiction of Stepinac, a massacre of three hundred fifty souls occurs. Thirty-five years later, Butler bears witness again:


The newspapers of the time, secular and ecclesiastical, are still to be seen in the Municipal Library, but this huge pile of documents, the Rosetta Stone of Christian corruption, has not yet been effectively deciphered…. In an authoritarian community, when there is hypocrisy and connivance at the centre, the ripples from them spread outwards to the remote circumference: ‘In vain do they worship me, teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men.[23]


After Zagreb, Butler traveled to Belgrade and Split to see friends. Some of the people he met, as well as the postwar atmosphere of the three cities, are recounted in “Some Encounters: Zagreb 1947,” “The Russian Consul,” and “Two Faces of Postwar Yugoslavia: Belgrade and Split.”

Butler’s penultimate visit to Yugoslavia was in 1950, with a delegation from the National Peace Council in Britain.[24] True to form, the one essay to emerge from this trip, “A Visit to Lepoglava” (1951), opens with Butler at the gates of the prison where Stepinac is held. Stepinac had been found guilty of collaboration, and the Vatican was asked to withdraw him to Rome; when the Pope refused, he was jailed. When Butler and his Quaker companions are brought in to Stepinac, they find the cell a good one, with light, a shelf of books, cupboard and iron bedstead, and a small chapel in the adjacent room. Respectfully but directly, Butler probes him about his role in the conversion campaign. Stepinac proffers no qualms but also no complaints; he is tight-lipped, evasive, sentimental. Like Chekhov’s visit to Sakhalin, or something out of E. M. Forster, it seems to me a quintessential moment in the literature of the Twentieth-century ethical imagination. “Surely,” Butler would later write with consummate understatement, “it must be one of the hardest blows that fate has dealt him that both Pavelitch and Sharitch speak well of him.”[25]

The Yugoslav swan song was a package holiday Butler and his wife took to Dalmatia in 1980. It proved an unpleasant affair, with sweltering heat and the cavernous Soviet-style hotels that had begun dotting the rocky promontories. Butler developed a leg ulcer, and they both returned exhausted.



Are there any general conclusions about the Balkan Butler to be drawn from the foregoing?

The first is surely that the Balkan writings are central, not, as is sometimes assumed, a Ruritanian branch-line to the basic Irish track. Butler always rejected the Hiberno-centric note; he was not (to paraphrase a Serb friend on certain Serbs) more Irish than was necessary. If anything, the two tracks, Ireland and Yugoslavia, are parallel, with occasional crossovers and junctions. This Balkan centrality becomes clear when one studies the chronology of the writings. It may come as a surprise, but up to and including 1948, he had written eleven [essays] on the Balkans (and he may have been working on others), three on Russia, two on the small nations of Europe, and one each on a German and an English topic.[26] Thereafter, the Irish topics multiply, but even at mid-century, the tally is eighteen on the Balkans and Eastern Europe and five on Ireland. I repeat: Butler the writer begins in Eastern and Central Europe.

The second point flows from the first. The Croatian genocide is at the heart of the corpus; it is not so much a limb as a backbone. For sound editorial reasons, the arrangement of the writings in the four Lilliput volumes did not, and could not, take into account chronology. To read the Balkan essays in chronological order, however, is to became aware of the frugal skill with which he broaches and elaborates the matter of the genocide. Themes are introduced and outlined; later they are embellished and extended. He begins by writing of his Balkan time and the wartime genocide; then the Nuncio controversy intervenes; then he interlaces both perspectives; what emerges is something more universal, transcending the particulars of either country.

The difficulty is that, scattered through the four volumes, the pattern of the Balkan work, second nature to the author, is lost on the reader not intent on unraveling it. Even when laid out in chronological order, the titles have an occasional and even strange air to the English ear, and so do not quite do justice to the crafted and supple orchestration that they embody. After all, did he not consider the events in Croatia “the most bloodthirsty religio-racial crusade in history”? How could a writer like Butler, with his ethical and historical and cultural cast of mind, with an intimate knowledge of the country and that defining moment in the Zagreb Municipal Library, give the theme short shrift? Indeed, how could he not make it central?

The last point puts the first two in context. It is that Butler first envisaged and then understood himself not merely as an Irish intellectual, but, equally, an intellectual of the larger cultural pattern to which Ireland belongs and into which it is subsumed: namely, the small nations of Europe, the so-called Succession States that emerged from the imperial aftermath of the First World War. This he makes clear in two related works of early genius, “The Barriers” (1941) and “The Two Languages” (1943), when at the height of the Hitleran darkness engulfing all those states save Ireland, he reflects on the cohesiveness of small communities and the role of the writer in the life of the nation. “It is a strange time,” he remarks,


to maintain the theory that a distinctive culture cannot exist without cultural intercourse, but since the mainspring of our freedom was not political theory but the claim that Ireland possessed and could develop a unique culture of her own, it is reasonable to examine this claim. . . . A nation cannot be created negatively by elimination or strategic retreats into the past. It must crystallize round the contemporary genius that interprets it. To acquire this detachment, they will need to have access to other forms of society, so that they can see their own lives objectively and in totality from the threshold.[27]


Through luck or design or both, Yugoslavia served as the twin, the parallel, the counterpoint, the contrasting other par excellence. There is this telling biographical passage in the Introduction to ESCAPE FROM THE ANTHILL:


Yugoslavia had been born in 1918 after the defeat of Austria-Hungary and the rise of the Succession States. For the Southern Slavs it was the fulfilment of an ancient dream of harmony between four neighbouring and kindred peoples. I was at Oxford then and there was springtime in the air. There were Serbs, Croats and Czechs, there were Irish too, all rejoicing in their new-found freedom. We all had minority problems and I was surprised that Ireland, least scarred by war, did not identify herself with the other small new states more warmly, share experiences and take the lead for which she was qualified.[28]


Butler never lost the sense of that youthful springtime, when the ideals of the Easter Rising were only a spiritual stone’s throw away from those of the Sarajevo conspirators.

Butler is a major Balkan writer. In historical terms, his prose is more insightful, sounder and more prescient, than the Balkan novels of Evelyn Waugh or Rebecca West. I do not, however, simply mean that he has produced major writing on the Balkans; that much has been obvious for some time. I mean, actually, that he is a writer whose Balkan work, in the cosmopolitan sense, also belongs, or ought to belong, to the lands that so intrigued him. In this, he is again one of literature’s rare birds. Like Bruce Chatwin with Australia, or Alexis de Toqueville with America, or Lord Byron with Greece, he will sooner or later penetrate the barriers of distance and language and establish a niche in the national life that once hosted him. What that happens, it will be a long-overdue homecoming.





©Chris Agee. This essay appeared in part in Graph (Dublin) 3.3, Summer 1999.






 Hubert Butler: Balkan Essays, 1937-1990:

Escape from the Anthill 1985

In Dalmatia 1937*

The Barriers 1941

The Two Languages 1943*

Some Encounters: Zagreb 1946 1946*

The Russian Consul 1947*

Father Chok and Compulsory Conversion 1947*

Report on Yugoslavia 1947*

Yugoslav Papers: The Church and its Opponents 1947*

Yugoslavia: The Cultural Background 1947*

The Last Ismirenje 1947

Maria Pasquinelli and the Dissolution of the Ego 1947

Two Faces of Postwar Yugoslavia: Belgrade and Split 1948*

Ireland and Croatia 1948*

James Bourchier: An Irishman In Bulgaria 1948*

Memorandum on the Struggle Between Christianity and Communism 1949*

Nazor, Oroschatz and the Von Berks 1949*

The Invader Wore Slippers 1950

A Visit to Lepoglava 1951

The Sub-Prefect Should Have Held His Tongue 1956

Mr Pfeffer of Sarajevo 1956

Return to Hellas 1961

The Final Solution 1962

Fiume, Sushak and the Nugents 1978*

The Artukovitch File 1970-1985

A Three-Day Nation 1990*

Afterword by Joseph Brodsky

*Unpublished until his essays were collected by The Lilliput Press, 1985-96.


Books by Hubert Butler:


Wellbrook Press, 1972

_________, ESCAPE FROM THE ANTHILL. Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 1985

_________, THE CHILDREN OF DRANCY. Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 1988

_________, GRANDMOTHER AND WOLFE TONE. Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 1990


London: Viking Press, 1990

_________, L’ENVAHISSEUR EST VENU EN PANTOUFLES.  tr. Phillipe Blanchard.

Pref. Joesph Brodsky. Paris Anatolia Editions, 1994

_________, IN THE LAND OF NOD. Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 1996

_________, INDEPENDENT SPIRIT. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996

Anton Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard. Tr. Hubert Butler. Intro. Tyrone Guthrie. London:

H.F.W. Dane & Sons Ltd; Boston.: Baker’s Plays

Leonid Leonov, THE THIEF. Tr. Hubert Butler. London: Martin Warburg, 1931. New York: Vintage, 1960


Relevant books:

Paul Blanshard, THE IRISH AND CATHOLIC POWER. An American Interpretation. Foreword,

H. Montgomery Hyde. London: Derek Verschoyle, 1954

Anthony Henry O’Brian, Count of Thomond, ARCHBISHOP STEPINAC: THE MAN AND HIS CASE.

Westminster: The Newman Bookshop, 1947

Richard Pattee, THE CASE OF CARDINAL ALOYSIUS STEPINAC. Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing, 1953

Marco Aurelio Rivelli, L’ARCIVESCOVO DEL GENOCIDIO: Monsignor Stepinac, il Vaticano, e la

dittatura ustascia in Croazia, 1941-1945. Milan: Kaos Edizioni, 1998.

Andrée Sheehy Skeffington, SKEFF: THE LIFE OF OWEN SHEEHY SKEFFINGTON 1909-1970. Dublin:

The Lilliput Press, 1991

Sudjic, Milivoj J. YUGOSLAVIA IN ARMS. (“Europe under the Nazis” series) London: Lindsay

Drummond, Ltd., 1942

Various, MARTYRDOM OF THE SERBS (Persecutions of the Serbian Orthodox Church and

Massacre of the Serbian People) (Documents and reports of the United Nations and

of eyewitnesses) The Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese for The United States of

American and Canada, 1943



Hubert Butler, “The Sub-Prefect Should Have Held His Tongue,” this issue

Chris Agee, “The Stepinac File,” this issue

Hubert Butler, “The Artukovitch File” Archipelago, Vol. 1, No. 2

Richard Jones, “An Appreciation of Hubert Butler,” Archipelago, Vol. 1, No. 2

A selection of papers read at the Centenary of Hubert Butler (October 20-22, 2000), Kilkenny 

The Bosnian Institute, London, directed by Quintin Hoare

The Clero-Fascist Studies Project: Christianty, Fascism and Genocide in the 20th Century 

Archbishop Stepinac’s Reply at the Trial 

“The Case of Archbishop Stepinac”

Kaos Editions

The Lilliput Press





[2] Ibid., p 259

[3] Ibid., p. 284

[4] Butler gives a full account of the Nuncio incident in “The Sub-Prefect Should Have Held His

Tongue,” ESCAPE FROM THE ANTHILL, pp. 270-82. It took place at a meeting of the Foreign Affairs Association in Dublin, following a lecture on the Church in Tito’s Yugoslavia by the editor of the Catholic weekly The Standard, entitled “Yugoslavia – the Pattern of Prosecution.”  After the lecture, Butler attempted to raise the issue of Church collaboration with the Croatian genocide. He takes up the tale:

I decided that at the end of his paper … I would try to show how variegated was the pattern of persecution in Yugoslavia, and how misleading our crude simplifications would be…. I got up, holding in my hands THE MARTYRDOM OF THE SERBS, a book published by the exiled Serbian Orthodox Church in Chicago, in case anything I said required authoritative corroboration. It had been given me by archpriest Nicolitch, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in England. But I had spoken only a few sentences when a stately figure rose from among the audience and walked out. It was the Papal Nuncio, of whose presence I had been unaware. The Chairman instantly closed the meeting, and there was an appalled silence, followed by a rush of reporters in my direction. They had understood nothing in the confusion. There was, consequently, some lively reporting, and two leading dailies quoted me as saying that the Orthodox Church, not the Communists, had initiated the persecution of the Catholics in Yugoslavia. In gigantic letters in the Sunday Express (Irish edition) I read: ‘Pope’s Envoy Walks Out. Government to Discuss Insult to Nuncio.’

In the ultramontane Ireland of the time, “the Insult,” as it was dubbed in the press, proved a sensation, and Butler suffered a good deal of small-town persecution.

[5] “Sad Kad Se Zito Talasa Pored Rusevina” (Now that the Rye Crop Waves Beside the Ruins), Irish Issue, Zidne Novine (December 1996, A4 format, 44 pages)


[7] Ibid., p. 259

[8] Ibid., p220

[9] Butler’s earliest essay, “Riga Strand in 1930,” was written soon after this visit. It was published for

the first time, 58 years later, in CHILDREN OF DRANCY.


[11] IN THE LAND OF NOD, 268

[12] In Butler’s day it was customary to anglicize Slav names. In my text, however, I have kept the

Slavic spellings.



[15] Butler Papers (unpublished correspondance)

[16] Ibid. (in typescript)


[18] Ibid., pp. 9-10

[19] Ibid., p. 10

[20] Ibid., p. 10

[21] IN THE LAND OF NOD, p 106


[23] ESCAPE FROM THE ANTHILL, p. 285 and p. 304

[24] His involvement with the delegation may have been set in train by a 1949 War Resisters League

International Conference in Holland, where he delivered a paper on pacifism and the Churches, “Memorandum on the Struggle between Communism and Christianity,” which alludes briefly to Stepinac.


[26] The three Irish essays are “New Geneva in Waterford” (1948), “Otway Cuffe” (1948), and and the

1948 parts of “Midland Perspectives” (1948-49). It is possible, of course, that several of the Irish essays published later were written earlier than this; but this would not affect the basic balance between European and Irish work up until 1949.



next page



contents download subscribe archive