The Kingdom of Servia

By William Joseph Showalter

[The National Geographic Magazine, April 1915]

With an area no larger than that of the State of Maine and a population smaller than that of the city of New York, the little Kingdom of Servia has played a role in the recent past the full magnitude of which cannot be reckoned until the end of time. Mayhap it has changed the whole course of human history!

Some years ago it was said of the Balkan Peninsula that it was the "powder-box" of Europe, and the events of last summer proved the statement true; and then some one a little later observed that if the Balkan Peninsula were the "powder-box," Servia was the "percussion cap."

How truly he spoke was not realized at the time, even by the speaker; for while men will ever disagree as to the deep-seated causes that led to the present great war, all the world admits that the bomb-throwing at Serajevo was the "percussion cap" that detonated the terrific forces behind the diplomacy of Europe.

Time was when the Balkan question was unheard of in the chancellories of Europe. Up to the French Revolution all that the rest of Europe seemed to think about concerning that region was a gradual driving back of the Turk into Asia and the possessing of the conquered territory; for in those times territory was worth no more than its face value in that strip of the earth.

Then Napoleon entered upon the scene with his invasion of Egypt and his ultimate purpose of taking India, and immediately the diplomatic world realized that the territory which Turkey held in Europe was indeed the key to southern Asia, both in commerce and from a strategic viewpoint.


Russia wanted to possess that key, and for a full century tried, both by diplomacy and the mailed fist, to get it. After the banishment of Napoleon to Elba, the Congress of Vienna was called, and Russia then wanted to get through the Dardanelles, but was denied. Again, in 1828, Russia tried to get through, but was checkmated by another conference of the Powers, which had decided among themselves that the best way to keep the key to Constantinople and the south of Asia out of Russia's hands was to keep it in Turkey's possession, and the Christian nations lined up on the side of the Turk. Again, in 1854, Russia found a diplomatic situation which seemed to offer her a bright prospect; so she delivered an ultimatum to Turkey, demanding that she be allowed to protect the Christians living in Turkish dominions. Under the advice of England and other Powers, Turkey turned down the Russian proposal, and the Crimean War resulted.

One of the terms of the treaty that ended the Crimean War, in which, England, France, Italy, and Turkey were allies, was that the Black Sea be declared neutral. This agreement was denounced by Russia at the time of the Franco-Prussian War, history telling us that Prussia agreed to back up the denunciation in return for Russian neutrality in the German war with France.

Once again Russia, indefatigable in her purpose, started on her quest for an outlet to the Mediterranean, and in 1876 found herself at the very gates of Constantinople. A treaty with the vanquished Turks followed, and the prize that Russia had coveted for generations seemed now in her grasp. But here again the Powers interfered, and Russia lost almost every fruit of her victory through the combined efforts of her Christian brethren.

The Congress of Berlin was called to dispose of Russia's pretenses toward the Mediterranean, for under her agreement with Turkey she had been given practically complete domination over the Balkan Peninsula.

The Congress met and proceeded to undo what Russia had done under the treaty of San Stefano. Russia protested bitterly, but Great Britain and Austria prepared to bring their armies and navies to bear on the discussion, so Russia finally acquiesced; and the territory that Russia had wrung from the Turk the Congress took over for the purpose of building up a group of Balkan States.


Bulgaria was made an autonomous principality under Turkish suzerainty. Eastern Rumelia was to continue under Turkish rule, but was given administrative autonomy. Bosnia and Herzegovina were to be occupied and administered by Austria-Hungary, but the sanjak of Novibazar was to be under Turkish control, with the recognized right of Austria-Hungary to station troops and maintain roads there. Montenegrin independence was provided for, as was that of Servia, while Rumania's declaration of independence was recognized.

The result of this new situation was to inject an entirely new element into the Near Eastern question. Thereafter the nations that had ambitions and counter-ambitions, with Constantinople and an outlet to the Mediterranean as their center, had to deal through the little buffer States of the Balkans, and it has been through that relation that Servia has acquired her prominence in Near Eastern affairs.

It is well here to recall the fact that in the basin of the Nish is the junction of the two great valleys that form today, as they have formed from the earliest ages, the shortest and most direct roadway between Europe and Asia. How the game of Balkan politics has been played in the years that have intervened since Servia became a member of the family of nations, with all of the mutual jealousies and fears and ambitions of the nations of Europe exerting their full force on the devoted little peninsula, constitutes one of the most thrilling tales of diplomatic history, and no man can understand the deeper-lying causes of the present situation who is unacquainted with these events.

Within the lifetime of men yet on the right side of threescore and ten, all of the great Powers have changed alliances from once to half a dozen times, and historians point out that little Servia at one time loved Austria as her savior and at another came to hate that country as her bitterest foe.

In all these international alignments and realignments doubtless every nation participating has developed an excuse satisfactory in its own eyes at least that its course was justified because self-preservation required it!


Russia has had six possible outlets to free water—the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea, the White Sea, the Yellow Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Adriatic. Yet Germany stood across her path to the Baltic, and though Peter the Great built Petrograd with the purpose of bringing Russia in contact with the outside world, it came to profit his country little when Germany rose to power. Likewise, after the slow and painful process of conquering the wilderness and the plain, to say nothing of the Mongols, Russia found her dreams of Dalney and Port Arthur rudely shattered by the Japanese. Still later, when her aspirations led her toward the Persian Gulf, and she had fought her way across the Caucasus and taken the Caspian Sea, England stepped in and said her nay, for that would have been an ideal land route to India for a potential enemy.

King Winter habitually bottles up the White Sea outlet for so many months in the year that there is no promise there; while all Europe has for a century sternly repressed Russia's desires toward the Dardanelles and the Adriatic.

And so today it happens that Russia is as completely cut off from the outside world as Germany, with only a treacherous White Sea outlet and a way out over the Trans-Siberian Railroad, and that is open only during the pleasure of the Japanese. It is no wonder, then, that Russia, landlocked for three centuries, refused an outlet every way she has turned, has set her heart on Constantinople, determined to exhaust every diplomatic resource in getting possession of an outlet to the Mediterranean.

On the other hand, England could not sit idly by and watch Russia thus thrust herself into a situation that threatened to do the same in the end with British commerce in the Orient that the fall of Constantinople did with western commerce. She knew that Constantinople's fall before the Turk had cut off western trade with Asia, causing the decline and decay of the cities of the Mediterranean and sending Columbus westward in search of another passage to India. And history, she feared, might repeat itself.


Also Austria-Hungary felt that she had her national life at stake, for with a majority of her people Slavs, and with Russia and Servia encouraging a Pan-Slavic movement, looking to the tearing from Austria-Hungary of all her Slavic provinces, she had, from her viewpoint, quite a substantial right to be afraid of a future that would result in any increase in Russia's dominions or Russian influence in the Balkans.

Germany's deep interest in the situation in the southeast of Europe arose from the fact that she had acquired commercial interests reaching from Constantinople to Bagdad. She had seen herself checkmated in her ambition to reach the Persian Gulf by pressure, which forced her to give up her concession for the building of a railroad through Nineveh and Bagdad to that gulf, and she knew that any Russian ascendancy toward the Aegean or the Adriatic Sea would break up her Asiatic and Arabian plans more completely than shutting her out of her railroad outlet to the Persian Gulf had done.

These, then, are the reasons why there was an unending round of diplomatic maneuvering for position going on in the Balkans, and why Servia became an issue that threatened and finally broke the peace of the world. Sometimes she was the victim of these maneuverings; sometimes she was an active participant in them.

But, whatever her position and whatever her relation to the situation, she has always been an interesting little member of the family of nations, her people a lively race, her faith in her destiny a high one, her history replete with interest, and her customs and manners possessed of a charm that compels interest.


As noted at the outset, one of the most interesting things about Servia is its smallness. That such a small nation could bring on the mightiest conflict that the world has seen since man first made war upon his fellow-man seems strange. Yet with all its smallness—no larger than Maine in area and no larger than New York city in population—it is only in the very recent past that it attained its present size. When it was a participant in the Balkan wars, it was only two-fifths as large as Pennsylvania in area and but little larger than Chicago in population. Starting into that war with 18,000 square miles of territory, it came out with 33,000 square miles; starting in with less than three million people, it came out with more than four million. And it came out with many of its dreams realized.

Considering that Servia is only a little more than a third of a century old as a member of the family of nations, and that only 37 years have elapsed since she escaped the blight of Turkish rule, she has made remarkable progress. When she became independent of Turkey she had few roads, for roads might be used to march over against the Turks, and Turkey wanted to keep every community isolated. Nor did she have many schools, for schools would give the Servian the power to read and write, and reading and writing are great aids when a people want to revolt against an oppressive rule.

We have no statistics as to the 15,000 square miles of territory taken from Turkey as a result of the Balkan wars, but for the 18,000 square miles that heretofore constituted Servia there are today more than 4,000 miles of highways. There were a few years ago nearly 1,500 public schools open and education was compulsory.


If one may judge from how closely they stay at home, it might be said that the Servians are a well-satisfied people, because they very seldom figure in the immigration statistics of any other country. And well they may be, for pauperism is unknown. The government will not allow any man to become an absolute pauper. There is a certain amount of property that the individual cannot alienate under any circumstances, and this is enough to insure him a roof for his head and food for his stomach throughout the year. The result is that there are no poor-houses in Servia and no paupers to demand them. A man may not alienate his cottage, his garden, his plow, his team of oxen, or as much land as he can plow with them in a day.

If Servia is a country without paupers, it is also a country without its idle rich, and also without an aristocracy. As some one has remarked, a land which has had a pig-driver for its ruler within a century cannot boast of its aristocracy; and for all that, Servia would not boast about it if there was one to boast about; for the Servians pride themselves on the democracy of spirit that makes King Peter the idol of his people and the people united in heart and purpose.


The constitution prescribes freedom of conscience, freedom of the press, the right of peaceful assemblage, and the right to inalienate property. The king and his congress are co-powers in the making of the national laws. The congress has control over the appropriation of money and the levying of taxes, subject to the approval of the king. Every male citizen who pays three dollars taxes a year and who is above the age of 21 votes in the election of delegates to the congress.

It is the people and their characteristics, next to the international relations of Servia., that are of chief interest. The country is rugged and mountainous, and the people fit in perfectly with the landscape. They have all the virtues of the mountaineer; their wants are as few as their sorrows; they live largely under that communal system that produces a morally clean race, and eat those foods that produce strong bodies. Of meats, mutton is the chief food, and it is said that Servia raises more sheep per capita than any other country in the world. The chicken for pot-pie on feast days and the turkey and suckling pig for Christmas are not wanting. The national beverages are spring water and plum wine, although Germany in late years has taught the city dwellers the art of drinking beer.


Industries are few, far between, and primitive. Every home, almost, makes its clothes from home-grown wool and flax. The footgear consists of leather sandals strapped around the ankle and worn over wool stockings. In bad weather these wool stockings give place to leather ones, with the fleece on the inside. The women still wear a knife or dagger, a survival of Turkish times.

While in some parts of the country substantial farming progress has been made, for the most part the methods that prevailed in the United States a hundred years ago are characteristic of Servian agriculture today. Servia came to America for its principal crop, and later for the salvation of another of its important crops. In quantity and value Indian corn takes the lead, and the Servian makes it serve nearly every situation encountered in the economy, of the farm—the meal he uses for his corn-cakes, which form a staple article of diet in every peasant home; the fodder for feeding his cattle; the grain he feeds to his pigs, for pig raising is a principal industry—so important, in fact, that one of Servians wars with Austria is known in history as the pig war. Some years ago a disease deadly to vines was imported into Servia from France and Switzerland, and the epidemic was ended only by the importation of American vines and the establishment of schools of viticulture.


Under King Alexander, who was assassinated about a dozen years ago, a considerable impetus was given to agriculture in Servia by the importation from Germany of the rural cooperative credit association based on the Raiffeisen principle. This system assumes that while ten peasants acting as individuals may have no borrowing power at all, when they act in cooperation the property of all pledged for the debts of each member renders their credit good, and it has worked out that way in Servia. The peasants of a community go together, pool their resources, and the entire membership stands for the debt of each individual. The result is that they are able to borrow money at low rates of interest and on good terms as to time of repayment. Each member of the credit association has it in his power to veto any loan, and every member makes sure that the borrower is putting his loan to good, use. The result has been that the careful peasant has not lacked for credit, and has been able to undertake expenditures that would have been impossible except for this system. The rural credit system of Servia is not dissimilar from that which has been proposed for the farmers of the United States.

The Servian peasant never brings himself to premature old age in the pursuit of the almighty dollar. He desires only a comfortable living, and regards his ease more highly than progress. He is much less thrifty than his neighbor, the Bulgar, much less given to war than his close friend, the Montenegrin, and much less a believer in educational progress than the Rumanian. He is given to sociability, however, and just as the rural agriculturist in our country in former times delighted to meet with his neighbors at the cross-roads post-office to discuss politics and neighborhood affairs, so the Servian peasant enjoys his evening at the village wine shop, where he goes to talk politics more than to drink; for be it said that the Servian takes to politics as naturally as the duck takes to water.


While in recent years there has been a tendency to break-away from the old form of communal life, one still sees many of the old-fashioned "Zadrugas" in every part of the country. These Zadrugas are family associations, which hold everything in common. The center of it is the large family house, with its great hearth, its community kitchen, and community dining hall. Around this house are grouped a large number of huts called "Vayats." Here the several families of the community live, always going to the central house to eat and to spend their evenings. Sometimes the heads of the community are the grandfathers and grandmothers of its members; at other times they are selected by vote of all the members of the community. They become the controlling forces, and the men and women are allotted their duties by them.

In the matter of marriage, the Servians are among the world's greatest sticklers against the violation of the laws of consanguinity. Cousins never marry; and it is rather rare for a boy to select his bride even in the same village. He usually seeks her at least a day's journey or more from home. The step toward bringing about a marriage are generally undertaken by a relative or friend, through whom the father seeking a bride for his son begins negotiations looking to a meeting of the young people. A Servian woman makes a good housewife. She prides herself upon her household linen, her jams, jellies and sweetmeats, and her daily meals.


he marriage customs of the Servians are peculiar in other particulars. There are no bridesmaids at a wedding, but two godfathers, each of whom must buy the bride material for a silk dress. A man, called the "dever," acts in the capacity of best man. He carries a bouquet, wears much ludicrous regalia, including a white sash, and must be the constant attendant of the bride during the entire day of the wedding. The Servian bride is usually older than the groom, for in the average household the girls are kept from marrying as long as possible. Their aid in household affairs at home is too important to encourage them to matrimony. On the other hand, most of the young men in Servia marry before they are twenty.

Every European country has its national dance, and perhaps one of the most peculiar is that, of Servia. They call it the "kola." When we read a few months ago about tangoing on the beach and everywhere else our dances were but copying the Servian idea as to occasions for dances. It matters little to them what their surroundings, the kola is danced upon the least provocation. It may be in the streets of the city or it may be while attending their flocks in the fields. On the field of battle the soldiers dance it, and at every state ball the King leads it. The dance is nothing more than a huge serpentine formation of a group of dancers hand in hand, which seems to twist and turn in and out as the dancers keep step to a monotonous tune. None of these steps are more intricate than those of a lot of children playing "ring around the roses."

The Servians are hospitable, sympathetic, witty, and by nature full of merriment, song, and dancing. At the same time they are a deeply religious people. At all family festivals three toasts are drunk—the first to the glory of God, the second to the Holy Cross, and the third to the Holy Trinity—with invocations for blessings to "the men in all places."


Servia is now suffering a terrific epidemic of typhus as a result of the herding together of the peasant classes in one portion of that riven country, and the great battle of the war, from a sanitary standpoint, is to find some method of completely controlling the spread of typhus-causing vermin. It probably represents a greater problem in concentration camps and trenches than any other disease that could come to them. The worst part of the situation is that the doctor and the nurse who volunteer for service, in a typhus-eradication campaign in crowded camps accept great chances that they themselves will become infected, in spite of every precaution, for it requires the greatest care and the most remarkable series of measures imaginable to prevent the transmission of the vermin to the clothes of those in attendance upon the sick. They must be garbed from head to foot in impervious sacking, must wear rubber gloves, and must smear mercurial ointment on the wrists. A single one of the hundreds of parasites often found on the patients and their clothes, coming into contact with the skin of the doctor or nurse, would communicate the disease.

Typhus is not as different in its symptoms from typhoid, in its early stages, as it is in the method of its causation. Where typhoid is caused by a germ that previously inhabited the intestinal tract of some typhoid patient, swallowed with food or drink, typhus is produced by a germ pumped out of the body of a typhus patient by the blood-sucking vermin, and then carried by the insect to the prospective victim and injected into his blood. In the earlier stages the diseases are rather closely allied in their symptology, so much so that in sporadic outbreaks typhus has been diagnosed as typhoid. But the crisis comes in eight days in typhus as against twenty-one days in typhoid. After that period the typhus patient dies quickly or recovers rapidly.

So serious has the condition become in Servia that Major General Gorgas, Surgeon General of the United States Army, has been offered the post of adviser on world sanitation in general and Servian typhus work in particular, with a liberal salary and a pension for himself and his widow in case of incapacitation or death, his distinguished achievement at Panama stamping him as a world's authority, not only in the critical knowledge of sanitation, but in actual carrying out of campaigns against epidemics.


Ethnologically the Servians are Slavs, while linguistically they are related to the Croats. History's earliest glimpse of them showed them an agricultural people living in Galicia. In the sixth century they moved southward to the Black Sea, and later into the northwestern corner of the Balkan Peninsula. It was not until 1804, however, that modern Servia had its inception. The population rose en masse and elected "Black George" the national leader. He was a pig-driver who could not write his name, it is said; yet by 1807 he had paved the way to Turkish recognition of the autonomy of Servia. During the Napoleonic wars, while Russia's attention was called to western fields, Turkey again invaded Servia and banished most of her leading men. In 1815 a new insurrection broke out, and two years later the Servians had regained their autonomy, which was confirmed by the Treaty of Adrianople between Turkey and Russia in 1829. Since that time Servia has had a somewhat eventful career. She was bitterly disappointed in the failure of the Congress of Berlin to consolidate Bosnia, Herzegovina, Montenegro, and the sanjak (territory) of Novibazar. This disappointment led to a temporary breaking of her friendship with Russia and the establishment of a new, one with Austria-Hungary. When Bulgaria took over eastern Rumelia, Servia, in order to get a compensating territory, waged a war on Bulgaria, which was stopped by the interposition of Austria-Hungary. In 1908, following the Young Turks' Revolution, Austria-Hungary formally annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina; whereupon Servia and Montenegro prepared to go to war with her as a result. The big Powers threw their influence on the side of peace, and the irrepressible conflict that broke out in 1914 was staved off six years.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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