MEDITATION ON THE DEATH OF MIHAILOVICH
By Robert Speaight in 'Time and Tide' (London) August 17,1946.
"As I sit writing these lines in the early dawn before a motionless sea, Mihailovich is facing the firing squad. I am not concerned with what the first of the Maquisards is supposed to have done or not to have done; what worries me is that nobody bothers about him...no, I am not going to pray for this world any longer, as it sits crouched on the atomic bomb, yellow with hatred, with its tongue babbling of social justice and its heart empty of love."
Soon after reading this extract from Georges Bernano's article in La Bataille, I came across a paragraph by Jean and Jerome Tharaud which told me that the last book Mihailovich was known to read was a volume of Maupassant. It is tantalizing not to know which story or novel he had chosen or found at hand, but it is not surprising that the tortured and betrayed patriot should have gone to his death bilious with the hatred of humanity. And then, as if in confirmation of his pessimism, I read that The Times gave its imprimatur to the verdict. The gentlemen of fortune who now direct the destinies of Serbia do not believe in an undue preparation for eternity. But there were still twenty-four precious hours during which the remnants of the Christian world could have conveyed its opinion to the man whom convention compels me to call Marshal Tito. The Professors of Printing House Square did not lose a minute -- they told him to go ahead. And so the murder of Draza Mihailovich becomes, like the murder of Jeanne d'Arc, a case for the English conscience.
It may be argued that after Miss Rebecca West's conclusive article in Time and Tide, there is nothing more to be said about Mihailovich. In a sense, that is true; no further argument is necessary. But it is of the essence of this particular judicial murder that men will go on discussing it for a very long time to come and those Englishmen who retain a memory of justice will ask themselves how far they or their fellow-countrymen were responsible. If they have lived through the last few years, it is not difficult to take the questions out of their mouths. Not for the first time, they will say, men have betrayed their friends to placate their enemies; but all the same it was an ironic accident that the Prime Minister who did more than any other single man to save the shreds of European freedom in 1940, should have consumated the most ignoble, the most fatuous, the most gratuitous and certainly one of the most fatal errors in the annals of British diplomacy. Having said this, they will admit that Mr. Churchill at least made the beginnings of an amende honorable-- and for a great man that is already a great deal-- but they will ask what happened to all those other voices that were so loud for liberty in 1940? Why were they so curiously silent, those porte-paroles of the national conscience, before the advance of an atheistic Communism, which, having no use for God, naturally has no use for man?
I am writing this far from home, and it is rueful to reflect that even here , where the Alps rise in their eternal poetry beyond the Lac de Bourget, one can still be asphyxiated by the fumes of English hypocrisy. Perhaps the old voices have spoken. I do not know. Perhaps Mr. Priestley has returned to the microphone. Perhaps Mr. Kingsley Martin has remembered that when Czechoslovakia was murdered at Munich he still still considered murder a capital offence. Perhaps someone has even introduced the thin end of a principle into the foreign policy of The Economist. I am sorry to be so personal. But these were the people who once told us what was what, and their immense public will be curious to know what they think about the murder of Mihailovich. One is beginning to be able to count them on the fingers of two hands -- the Just Men of the Left. Mr. Gollancz, Lord Beveridge, Lord Pakenham, and a few others. They have been alone for all too long. The Labour Party, which has always derived its strength fron English idealism and the English instinct for natural law, has need of some moral breakwaters. In the nature of things--or at least in the nature of politics--Mr. Bevin cannot go on forever. And there is always Dr. Dalton.
These are speculations, but when we enter the realm of certainty to find out what has happened to the English conscience, we discover that The Times approved the verdict. We know very little about the theology of Printing House Square, but somewhere among those panellede rooms there must surely be an altar dedicated to the fait accompli. The memory of The Times, which is more or less the same thing as the memory of mankind, is presumably immune fron the pain of inconvenient reminders; so I shall hardly flutter an editorial hair if I recall the good advice given to the Czechs to sacrifice themselves to the Germans, or to the Poles to sacrifice themselves to the Russians, or to the Greeks and Yugoslavs to hand themselves over to the same benefactors. They are quite simple--the formula of the new realism. Find out which of the Great Powers, at any given moment, is most imminently hostile to the basic principles of European freedom, then persuade all your friends to commit hara-kiri in order that the Power in question may become practically invincible; finally, "having exhausted every reasonable compromise" -- for that is the official meiosis for the betrayal of an Ally--show wide-eyed surprise and an immense moral indignation when your own positions are attacked. These are, in one respect of course, the politics of Bedlam; but they are also are also, viewed at a more profound level, the politics of a fundamental scepticism, and they illustrate very vividly the relation between Truth and Action. Like Pontius Pilate, The Times asks itself the question of "What is truth?" and like Pilate it is careful to wash its hands. But somehow I doubt whether Pilate himself would have welcomed a leading article in approbation of his own sentence on the day when Roman justice succumbed to a show of hands.
The death of Mihailovich will have served its mournful purpose if it makes clear to the most confused intelligence that there have been two wars in Europe and that our Allies of the first are our enemies of the second. The professional revolutionary whom conviction compels me to call Marshal Tito, has explained it to us. The sentence on Mihailovich was a "sentence on international reaction"; after all, this convinced Orthodox Serb had not scrupled to have "certain dealings with the Catholic Church." Very well, we know where we are; but if we are to be saved--for this is indeed a matter of salvation--we must recognize the enemy within the gates of our country, and, even more importantly, within the gates of our own conscience. There is an old formula which tells us the ways in which sin may be committed, cogitatione, locutione, opere et omissone; it is a formula from which there is no escape. Let everyone who has been occupied these last few years with politics or publicity ask himself whether he is wholly innocent of the blood of this just man.
Reprinted from "The World's Verdict" 1947