As the Air Croatia plane began its descent into Zagreb, it came to me that I had no idea where I was going. The Chesterton Society conference was to be held downtown at Europski Dom, but the participants were being put up at a Jesuit seminary. In a city of nearly a million, the Jesuits would probably have more than one address. As I was to learn in the coming days, greater Zagreb is riddled with Jesuit seminaries and schools, to say nothing of other religious houses and foundations. Indeed, the city sprung up around the cathedral, and the oldest part—the “Kaptol”—takes its name from the chapter of canons.

Any traveler is understandably anxious about landing in a strange country in the midst of war and political change, especially if his command of the language barely covers ordering a meal. Try as I might, I could not recall even the word for information (obvashtenje), although, as it turns out, the Great I is a universal symbol. My fears were exacerbated by the knowledge that, war or no war, communism or ex-communism, nothing ever seems to get done in the Balkans, except after a long and bitter sequence of missed appointments and broken promises that give victory the taste of ashes.

What part of this mentality is the ancient legacy of the Balkans and what part the residue of communism, I am not prepared to say. Ibm Sunic, who now handles foreign press relations for the ministry of foreign affairs, came to the conference and described the mind of Homo yugoslaviensis as a compound of sloth and dependency that justified itself as a technique of subversion against the state, and the evidence for his thesis is everywhere in Zagreb.

If it had been up to Homo yugoslaviensis, I might still be in the airport trying to buy a map. Fortunately, I was met by a man apparently untouched by years of communist rule. Marijo Zhivkovitch, director of Obiteljski Centar (a program to help families), picked me up in his van on the way to his warehouse, where a truck was waiting to take old clothes to distribution points. Marijo is a Catholic activist and a personification, albeit a gentle one, of the Church militant. Strat Caldecott, the conference’s main organizer, calls Marijo a saint, and rather than blushing like an embarrassed Anglo-Saxon, Marijo shrugs his shoulders and asks, “Man who keeps Commandments and does God’s work, what is he but saint? All good Christians are saints.”

In the days to come, I came to look upon Marijo as part saint and part Saint Bernard, especially when I would see his huge frame striding across the snow to rescue us from one minor disaster after another. Instead of a keg of brandy, Marijo has a van usually stuffed with antiabortion tracts, pro-family pamphlets, rosaries recently blessed by the Pope, foodstuffs, and boxes of clothing.

It is not just the people of Bosnia who need clothing. Although food and rent are comparatively cheap in Zagreb, clothes and furniture arc valued on a Western scale. Unfortunately, a good Zagreb salary is $200 per month, and a teacher is unable to afford the price of the suit he is required to wear. For all the moral erosion effected by communism, respectable Croats are unwilling to line up to receive clothing. Rather than let them shiver and be damned, Marijo’s “collaborators” take clothes directly to the needy.

His chief accomplices in this business are Neda and Mato Mandir, who were kind enough to put me up my last night in Zagreb. Their apartment is stuffed with secondhand clothing, much of it from Poland. (What is Vergil’s line about people that have known suffering being more inclined to charity? Non ignara mali, miseris succurrere disco.) Husband and wife both work, and when they are not taking care of their five children, they are packing and distributing clothes. Their eldest daughter, who speaks excellent English, shows me a suit destined for a gymnasium teacher too proud to pick it up. They will take it to him tomorrow.

Marijo and his friends do not speak of welfare or social assistance. Instead, when they provide food and clothing to a family with children—their usual target—they enclose “beautiful letter explaining we do this to honor you as parents who have taken on the noble task of raising many children.” In the days to come, as the members of the conference debate the merits of the free market versus some form of Christian socialism, I have cause to think repeatedly of Marijo and of the difference between charity given out of love, both to man and God, and the political schemes that use welfare as a bribe to win support for a regime.

Why pick Zagreb, of all places, as the site of a conference on economics and ethics? Little enough of either, some might be tempted to say. Actually, the place and time are perfect. Whatever one thinks of the breakup of Yugoslavia (I’m all for it, but then I’m all for breaking up every repressive imperial state), the successor republics are in a position to rediscover their national identities and to create political institutions that reflect their national character rather than an imposed ideology, whether communist or capitalist.

It is generally said that Serbs and Croats are one people, united in language and blood and divided only in religion. To me, however, they seem as different as the Germans and the French. Historically, Croatia is a Catholic country as much as Poland or Ireland. As a province of Austria-Hungary, Croatia developed along radically different lines than those imposed on Turkish-dominated Serbia. The Turks were a harsh and alien set of masters, and the best of the Serbs developed a tradition of armed rebellion and national assertion. The Croats, on the other hand, shared the religion of the Austrians and Hungarians, and however much the latter succeeded in bullying Croatia for nearly half a millennium, the result was a prosperous and civilized people, outwardly almost as Germanic as the Czechs.

I attend a dinner party given by the Paneuropean Union. It is a very civilized gathering, but what I am really looking forward to is the traditional music I am told we shall be hearing. I walk into the little auditorium, clutching my glass of lozovacha (most of the Croats are sipping champagne), expecting peasant costumes and twanging folk music, only to see a well-dressed pair of musicians perform a fine recital of 19th-century German music. Brahms is, for many Croats, their musical tradition. Small wonder that Paul Gottfried and other civilized conservatives (they do exist) find it easy to take the Croatian side.

The contrast with the Serbs is dwelt upon at great length in nearly all my conversations with Croatian intellectuals. Speaking of Yugoslavia as a doomed experiment, one lady tells me, “You can’t expect a humane and civilized people to be happily married to a bunch of wild men who had just come down from the hills.” The Serbs, I am told, are a people without music or literature. “They are so proud of old Vuk [Vuk Karadjitch, the linguist and ballad-collector who standardized the literary language of both Serbs and Croats], because he taught them to write.” I make the mistake of saying that a Serbian monastery was printing books on a secret press within 50 years of Gutenberg’s invention. It was as if I had told a black Muslim that whites were capable of kindness.

I have been hearing these mutual recriminations for years. The Croats are wiley traitors whose greatest pleasure lies in their periodic genocides against the Serbs; on the other hand, the Serbs are a savage and treacherous race bent on exterminating the Croats, because they envy Croatian superiority. I once had a long conversation with a Croat about Dante, and just as I was thinking what a relief not to talk about the Serbs, he quoted from Dante’s list of wicked rulers (in Paradiso XIX): “E quel di Rascia, che male ha visto il conio di Vinegia.” “Do you know who those counterfeiters were?” It is the Serbs, known for their dishonesty even in Dante’s time.

There is some truth in both sets of insults. Serbs inevitably strike urbane central Europeans as uncouth, for the very reason that they remain a folkish people. At his worst, the Serb is a strutting bully, as arrogant as he is merciless. (At his best, he is exuberant and generous.) The Croat, on the other hand, is much more polite—if not always so friendly—and life in Zagreb seems unimaginably lovely compared to Belgrade. At his worst, however, the Croat is more slippery than even the official Serbs in Belgrade. If the Serbs are Machiavelli’s lions, then the Croats would surely be good candidates for foxes. Each nation, including ours, I conclude, finds its own way to hell.

The Croats are not all intellectuals and string-players. The seminary—Fratrovac—is located on a high hill outside the city, and in the neighborhood there are still little farms with small plots. There is also the unmistakable odor of penned hogs. If the brick houses were covered with white stucco, I might think I was in Serbia. Peasants apparently constitute a majority in Croatia, where the Peasants Party still has a following. Drinking coffee one afternoon in Europe House, I am introduced to a political intellectual, who hands me a newspaper. It is only later that I realize that Glasnik Hrvatske Seljachke Stranke means messenger of the Croatian Peasant Party (HSS). Inside there is a 1936 essay by Stjepan Raditch on the harmony of village life. The little I can make out reminds me of Andrew Lytic and Frank Owsley.

The next day I spot the man with the newspaper, and he turns out to be advisor to Drago Stipac, the head of the HSS. The party has not changed its emphasis, he tells me, since the days of Stjepan and Ante Raditch. The HSS is a traditional peasant movement, opposed to all attempts at centralization, democratic or socialist, and their philosophy is rooted in Tolstoy’s principle of non-violence, although they do make an exception for self-defense. Croatia, he says, is in crisis, and he fears the rise of militarism. Only the HSS, he says, is a true Croatian party that can unify the country and save it from the excesses of communism and capitalism.

Historically, the Croatian Peasant Party was among the most interesting political movements in the Balkans. Its heroes, the Raditch brothers, may have been ideologically inconsistent—much like American populists in this regard— but no one doubted either their commitment or their power. The murder of Stjepan Raditch in the Yugoslav parliament is an act of far greater significance locally than, say, the murder of JFK is to us, and the Croats blame it on a Serbian plot, even though Raditch was a personal friend of the king, who regarded him as essential to his own power. The Montenegrin who shot him said it was to avenge an insult, and anyone who knows Montenegrins will find this explanation easy enough to believe, but Raditch’s death profited ultra-nationalists in both Croatia and Serbia.

Although the party is not explicitly Catholic, the social and economic views of the HSS are rooted, I am told, in Rerum novarum, which this intellectual interprets to mean adherence to the free market subject to Christian doctrine. This conversation confirms my perception that the strongest element in Croatian life is still the Church, persecuted but never co-opted by the communists. (One wishes the same could be said of the official Serbian and Russian Orthodox establishments.) Europe House, where our group is meeting, stands only a block or two around the main square from the cathedral, and our deliberations never stray very far from the Church’s great encyclicals on political economy.

In recent years. Eastern Europe has been overrun by free-market conservatives promising to undo the effects of communism in a decade. The hopes they raised have largely gone unrealized, and communist electoral victories in Poland and Lithuania might be interpreted as votes of no confidence in Milton Friedman. But what if the freemarketers were wildly successful in transforming Vilnius and Zagreb into Santa Barbara? California is a land of gentle (usually) savages, whose skills are in the service of consumerism. Life in these United States has all the vulgarity and hedonism of Petronius’s Trimalchio—without any of the exuberance. I had somehow hoped that all the taxes we lavished on the Cold War would mean, in the end, something better than David Letterman.

European Catholics strike me as obsessed with Michael Novak, an amiable enough journalist whom it is difficult for an American to view with alarm, but Catholics on both sides of the torn curtain are either enthralled or—more often—terrified by the efforts of Novak and his colleagues to identify the Christian social message with democratic capitalism. (Communione e Liberazione writers describe Messers. Novak, Weigel, and Neuhaus as the Neoconservative Trinity.) I do my best to explain that there is nothing particularly new in what they have to say—it is John Dewey grafted onto John Courtney Murray—and none of them writes well enough to attract a mass following. Besides, the leftist excesses of the young Maritainista Novak are excellent weapons to use against the state-capitalist excesses of the older Deweyite Novak. If a Church that weathered Pelagius, Arius, and the Babylonian Captivity cannot survive neoconservatism, then the spirit has fled. Fight them on the issues, if you like, but do not confuse them with demons or angelic doctors.

The conference shapes up as a dialogue between those who insist upon the corporate nature of human society and individualists who can look at a family and see only competing interests. Russell Sparkes, a retired investment banker from London, delivered a strong defense of medieval guilds, only to receive the hackneyed counter-argument that everything the guilds used to do is now being done by chambers of commerce, the Better Business Bureau, and insurance companies.

I am probably more of an anarchocapitalist than most of the free-marketers I have met. A free market is generally the most efficient—and the fairest—mechanism for distributing goods and services. But there is more to human social life than markets. In ancient Athens, the agora was a place of commerce and conversation, but one cannot appreciate Athenian life without climbing the hill up to the Acropolis, where the temple of Athena embodied the highest aspirations of the Athenian people. To speak of market value in connection with religion, family, art, or literature is to talk on the level of vulgar utilitarians, whose pretensions were exploded long ago by serious philosophers. That Christians, and Catholic Christians to boot, should use so degenerate a language is one more sign of the evil times in which we live. Before such despots as Henry VIII and Louis XIV consolidated the modern state, the task of government was limited to providing justice to those who asked for it loudly enough and to defending the nation from foreign aggressors and from domestic subversion. The poor, except for periods of emergency, were not the object of royal philanthropy. That task was reserved for the Church, whose monasteries and hospitals offered care and sustenance to the sick and the destitute as well as to weary travelers. For regular poor relief, medieval societies relied upon the local parish.

As soon as modern rulers were able to usurp the property and social functions of the Church, the state was in a position to make itself supreme. A Christian social order, on the other hand, rests upon two powers, the twin thrones of empire and church. If the church rules, the results are dreadful—i.e., the Puritan theocracy or the Renaissance papal states, but when the state reigns supreme and deals out the national wealth to anyone who will support government, the result is what we see around us every day: high taxes, a devouring swarm of place-seeking bureaucrats, a servile and degraded population that looks to government with greater awe and expectation than Diocletian’s subjects.

Several speakers at the conference drew parallels with the later days of Rome. If only we were that well off. The savages who invaded the empire were robust and vigorous, and once Christianized, they took only five or six centuries to create a new civilization. I am not so hopeful for our descendants. The students at Zagreb University, to whom I lectured on something like the spur of the moment, were a little surprised by an American who refused to adopt a triumphalist tone. But the evidence of what is wrong with my country was abundantly present in this class of 200 bright and well-groomed students, many of whom were not even registered in this faculty, much less this course. Their questions showed how much they actually understood of my rather dangerous talk on federalism, and wherever the conversation went—from population ecology to ethnic cleansing—they were prepared to follow.

Rebecca West found the Croats to be the most intellectual people in Europe. Even so, I am impressed. The students came, not to hear me, but to listen to former Deputy President Zdravo Tomac, who is giving a series of lectures on the new government of Croatia. It is not only that they seem to be better educated than their American counterparts, it is that quite apart from hours and credits they are genuinely interested in ideas, especially ideas that have some bearing on their national future.

I meet an English-Croat graduate student who has only recently begun visiting what he regards as his country. (I meet more than one American in similar circumstances.) He tells me quite grandly that Croats have always been seduced by other nations—Venetians, Austrians, Hungarians, and (worst of all) Serbs—but now it is time for them to go it alone. I wonder, aloud, if it would not be a good idea to establish closer economic and political ties with Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and perhaps Northern Italy (once it is liberated). A union for trade and even currency, yes, but he is adamantly against a political union.

For myself, I cannot shake the suspicion that I am in a province of Austria-Hungary. Few people speak English, but my little bit of German is repeatedly called on to pinch-hit for my Croatian. The Mandir family watch television as they pack clothes, switching easily from Croatian to German stations, and everywhere in Zagreb, the great historical monuments connect them with the dual monarchy.

One evening I attend a special mass being celebrated for two groups that are meeting simultaneously in Zagreb, the Chesterton Society and the Paneuropean Union. Deciding on language must have been a difficult task. The bishop speaks in German for his announcements and sermon. The scripture readings are in German, Croatian, English, and even French. What a babel the whole affair might have been, were it not for the mass itself, sung beautifully in Latin by as good a choir as I have heard.

Outside the streets arc miserable, pelted by snow and sleet in which I have been walking ankle-deep all day. Later that night I shall find myself abandoned nearly a mile from Fratrovac—the cab cannot make the hill, and standing there shivering, waiting for others to arrive, I begin to think I can hear wolves howling across the snowy fields. The English and Americans begin talking, despondently, of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, but the Poles rise to the occasion. It is only at this moment that I realize what a strange and wonderful people the Poles are. While the rest of us are practicing the fine art of the whine, they are laughing, telling fanciful tales, bantering with a language in which the absurd meets the sublime. In a moment, we are all laughing together like idiots and slogging merrily back to the seminary, where we drink every last drop of wine and liquor we can lay our hands on.

The unseasonable storm has paralyzed the resources of postcommunism, and the only plow I have seen was clearing the snow in front of the parliament building. Smiling clerks cannot find my faxed messages; ears fail to materialize; even the telephones go on the fritz; and I find it easy to make generalizations about Homo yugoslariemis.

Here in the cathedral, though, is a real Croatia, pious and possessed of a sober dignity not untinged by mysticism, and I remember something Louis Frankopan told me. The Frankopans are among the most ancient Dalmatian families and provided the last (I believe) native Ban. Count Frankopan remarked that Croatia was important to Europe as a Catholic nation that incorporated some of the mysticism of the Eastern church, and at this moment 1 see that it is precisely in religion that the Serbs and Croats arc most closely bound.

I have great difficulty following the bishop’s remarks. lie says a number of nice tilings about O.K. Chesterton, before going on to a subject closer to his heart, the president of the Paneuropean Union, Otto von Hapsburg. The latest Hapsburg, who has renounced the throne, is present to read some of the lessons and prayers, and the bishop pays a moving tribute to his “königlich, kaiserlich Hoheit.” How many Croats share this enthusiasm for the royal and imperial highness, a poor Jeffersonian suspicious of princes has no way of knowing, but here in this cathedral, in a service whose form and language once bound all European man together, in the presence of the last claimant to a throne that represented an order both holy and Roman, I marvel, almost in tears, at how much blood was shed, how many cities ruined, how many insane projects erected upon the bones of Christian peasants and merchants in this terrible century, which for me, here in Zagreb, is closing on the long reverberating note of an organ playing music composed long ago somewhere in Christendom.