Balkan Essays review: Hubert Butler still speaks for today

Roy Foster on a reminder of Butler’s articulation of issues that defined the 20th century – and remain relevant

Balkan Essays
Balkan Essays
Author: Hubert Butler, edited by Chris and Jacob Agee
ISBN-13: 978-0-9935532-0-2
Publisher: Irish Pages Press
Guideline Price: €30

The idea of The Balkans is romantic and suggestive: exploited by fin-de-siecle thriller writers such as E Phillips Oppenheim, immortalised in Olivia Manning’s great trilogy of novels about the second World War in Romania and Greece, and recently and mordantly deconstructed by historians and cultural critics such as Mark Mazower and Vesna Goldsworthy.

The large and complicated peninsula containing, or spreading into, the former Yugoslavia, Greece, Albania, Romania and Bulgaria was a territory where the Irish essayist Hubert Butler lived, travelled, researched, returned to and compulsively wrote about. His essays on the area, with some ancillary material, are now gathered into one volume, with a long and penetrating introduction by one of the editors, Chris Agee.

Most of the pieces here have already appeared in the five-volume edition of Butler's essays produced by Antony Farrell at Lilliput Press, but there are several previously unpublished works, and some writings excavated from journals such as the Church of Ireland Gazette and Grille. These are inevitably less polished than the beautifully crafted pieces familiar from the burgeoning number of Butler compendia, such as Mr Pfeffer of Sarajevo, The Invader Wore Slippers and The Artukovitch File.

The first of these unpicks the network of conspirators who eventually brought about the assassination of the Austrian archduke in 1914, through the prism of their state prosecutor; the second looks at collaboration in German-occupied territories during the second World War, ending with some feline speculations about what would have happened if Ireland had suffered a similar fate; the third recounts Butler’s forensic pursuit of the story behind the escape of a Croatian war criminal thanks to the good offices of Franciscan networks in Ireland and the United States. The themes of threatened liberalism and compliance in genocidal regimes recur.


The collection also includes beguiling accounts of his varied Balkan travels and conversations (The Russian Consul, Some Encounters: Zagreb 1946, and the previously unpublished In Serbian Macedonia) – very different both in tone and social range from Patrick Leigh Fermor's much better-known explorations.

Yugoslav Suite

But the weight of the book falls on what the editors call The Yugoslav Suite: the essays exploring the traumatic history of the region during the 1940s, centring on the terrible forced conversions and murder of Orthodox Christians by the Nazi-supported authorities of "Independent Croatia".

Butler’s dogged postwar campaign (backed by deep-level research in Zagreb) fell foul of those determined to represent Archbishop Stepinac as a pure and simple martyr to communism. Butler reiterates that Stepinac’s role was passive compared with some of his clerical colleagues’, but the archbishop also (as Agee points out) bears a strong affinity to the modern Organisation Man most terrifyingly represented by Adolf Eichmann, the subject of another essay here.

Butler’s battles with right-wing Catholic opinion are charted in an appendix as well as in several trenchant essays. An afterword by his Croatian translator and editor describes him as “a Christian devoted to Christian ethics”, but the complications of his standpoint are more subtly explicated in Robert Tobin’s excellent intellectual biography, which deserves to be mentioned here.

A further advantage of the concentration of this material is the extended treatment given to comparisons between Ireland and Croatia (including a suave letter from Butler correcting Evelyn Waugh’s assumption that there were parallels between the Ustashe movement in the 1940s and Sinn Féin between 1916 and 1923).

The final essay in the book is the last one Butler wrote, in 1990, affectionately devoted to Alexei Gierowski, the avatar of Carpatho-Russian nationalism – representing a tiny territory on the 1914 Austro-Hungarian border, later merged into Ukraine.

The essay begins with a characteristic Butlerian credo: “I’ve always been a nationalist and believed that small nations have been less likely to be corrupt than large ones; and the fact that most of the small nations that were born or revived in the early twenties have appeared to be mediocre or commonplace or ended disastrously in 1945 has not utterly disillusioned me. AE [George Russell] was always reminding us that Attica was no larger than Tipperary and Athens no bigger than Clonmel, and yet he would have argued, if he had not died disillusioned in Bournemouth, that the one million of Athens produced Pericles and Socrates and that the two hundred million of the USA produced President Reagan.”

Here as elsewhere he seems to be speaking for today. Antony Farrell’s endnote to this essay, reproduced here, remarks that Butler is once again finding, through one obscure and forgotten voice, the articulation of issues that defined the 20th century.


More editorial intervention could have been provided in this edition, such as a note at the end of The Artukovitch File about the fugitive's long-postponed extradition, trial and death (1986-8). The inclusion of everything "Balkan" leads to a certain amount of repetition; for instance, the material covered in lapidary essays such as The Sub-Prefect Should have Held his Tongue or The Last Izmerenje (dealing with a Montenegrin family feud and its resolution) is repeated less economically elsewhere in the book.

But the value of Balkan Essays is to remind us of Butler's continuing relevance, whether in his reflection that without cultural collaboration small nations will "bitterly recoil into self-sufficiency, pedantry, mythology and linguistics" or in his 1947 observation that "broken and frustrated people with no great love of life or expectations of it, [will] look forward to Armageddon with almost religious excitement".

And what he would have made of the world of “alternative facts” is not hard to guess: it is implicit in every line he wrote.

Roy Foster's most recent book is Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890-1923