Late one evening, I staggered into the dining room of the Palace Hotel, an imposing Habsburg-style edifice in the Croatian capital Zagreb. It was November 1994, at the height of the war in Bosnia, a struggle in which Croatia was heavily and controversially involved. The streets were full of soldiers and policemen. It was dark, and I was tired after a long journey.
The elderly man and his wife finishing their meals rang a vague bell, but I had no idea who they were when we fell into conversation while I waited for my food. I told them that I was thinking of writing a critique of British appeasement of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. What, the old man asked, was I planning to call the book? Guilty Men, I answered.
I thought that my interlocutor started slightly, and his wife’s jaw dropped. So did the penny. “I didn’t catch your name,” I continued. “Michael Foot,” came the reply. I was in the presence not only of the late former Labour leader but also of the man who, together with Frank Owen of the Evening Standard and Peter Howard of the Daily Express, had penned the original Guilty Men under the nom de plume of Cato in 1940.
This Left Book Club bestseller became the best-known critique of Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement of Nazi Germany and has spawned many imitations. My own book was eventually published in 2001 under the title of Unfinest Hour. Foot attended the London launch at the University of Westminster.
In Zagreb, we were both attending a meeting of the Croatian Pen Club, designed primarily to generate support for a country which was still very much in the sights of the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic and his paramilitary proxies. The event was held in a very large hall, filled to capacity with local intellectuals, politicians, military men and members of the public.
Foot’s own lecture was a tour de force, more of a patriotic harangue in which he urged Croats to free their homeland, but at the same time not to betray the Bosnians, on whom Croatia’s President Tudjman had turned the year before. “You will win,” he told a rapt audience, his frail frame shaking with fervour. At the time, this seemed a vain hope: one-third of the country was under direct military occupation by Serb militias. Two-thirds of Bosnia had been taken by the forces of Ratko Mladic; and the prospect of Western military intervention still seemed remote.
Yet within nine months, the Croatians reunified their country, by their own efforts, albeit with some US logistical support, and made a decisive contribution to ending the Bosnian war as well. Michael Foot, who died last month, may have been wrong about a lot of things but he was dead right about Croatia.