Serbia and Southeastern Europe

By George Macaulay Trevelyan

[The Atlantic Monthly Magazine, July 1915]

I

The problem of Southeastern Europe may be best defined as the problem of those races which were at one time subject to the Turk. Those races include the Magyar, the Roumanian, the South Slav (Croat and Serb), the Bulgarian, the Greek, and the Albanian. A mistake has often been made in England and America in dividing up this single Southeastern problem into two water-tight compartments, one labeled 'Balkan States' and the other 'Austria-Hungary.' But the two sets of intricate race-problems associated with the words 'Balkans' and 'Austria-Hungary' respectively are in fact indissolubly connected, for this reason—that the independent part of the South Slav race inhabiting Serbia and Montenegro is in the Balkan Peninsula, while the greater part of the South Slav race is found in Austria-Hungary. And similarly, while independent Roumania is one of the four Christian powers of the Balkan Peninsula, there are some three and a half million Roumanians in Hungary subject to Magyar rule. In 1915 Serbia and Southeastern Europe fact the South Slav race and the Roumanian race are each cut in half—one half free in the Balkans, the other half subject to the rule of the Emperor Francis Joseph. For this reason it is impossible to dissociate the Balkan question from the questions of southern Austria-Hungary.

The Balkans, Hungary, and Bosnia are the selfsame countries of Europe which were at one time submerged beneath the Turkish flood. The high-water mark of that flood was reached at the abortive siege of Vienna by the Turks in 1683. In the generation following that event the Turkish flood first began to subside, in the time of the great Austrian general Prince Eugene, best known to Englishmen as Marlborough's colleague at Blenheim. Largely by the victories of Eugene, the whole of Hungary was delivered from the Ottoman yoke, and modern Austria-Hungary (except Bosnia and Dalmatia) was then formed. It was formed at the expense of the Turk, but it was formed no less at the expense of the future freedom of the races that Austria then delivered. In delivering them from the Turk, the House of Hapsburg made them subject to its own dominion. On the other hand, the lands that now constitute independent Serbia and Roumania continued as parts of the Turkish Empire throughout the eighteenth century. At that price they purchased their present national existence.

During the eighteenth century the Turks usually held Belgrade, as the outpost of decivilization against Europe. And so things remained until, in the first years of the nineteenth century, the movement for the emancipation of the Balkan races began with the revolt of northwest Serbia under the hero Kara George. A dozen years later, in the time of Byron, the Greeks imitated the Serbians; and in yet another generation, in the time of Gladstone and Disraeli, the Bulgarians followed suit. Finally, in 1912, the Turks were driven into a very small corner of Europe by a combination of Bulgarian, Serbian, and Greek. The Roumanians, who had never been so completely enslaved by the Turks as the Balkan peoples south of the Danube, were throughout the nineteenth century consolidating the independence and prosperity of modern Roumania. This work was carried to success by the good King Carol, who died a few months ago.

This nineteenth-century work of the liberation of the Balkans from Turkey differs in character from Prince Eugene's liberation of Hungary. In the first place, the nineteenth century was the era of nationality, ushered in by the French Revolution and the wars of Napoleon. French ideas of liberty profoundly affected the races subject to the Turk. Hence in the nineteenth century we find the Balkan peoples working out their own liberation and forming independent states on the basis of nationality and democracy—Roumania, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece. This is a much more complete work of liberation than the work which Prince Eugene had accomplished under the ancien régime, of substituting the Austrian for the Turkish rule in Hungary.

We must also remark another difference between the earlier and the later expulsions of the Turk. Austria had been the instrument of the earlier expulsion; but during the whole nineteenth century Russia was the leader of the liberationist movement. England sometimes went against the Turk, under Byron and Gladstone, sometimes for him, under Palmerston and Disraeli. But Russia has for a hundred years been the steady friend of liberation in the Turkish Empire, and has fought at least three wars in that interest. We have to recognize frankly, as Bright and Gladstone recognized, as Palmerston and Disraeli failed to recognize, that, although Russia is a despotism at home, she has been more ready to engage in wars of liberation abroad than any other country in Europe or America. Roumania, Serbia, Greece, and Bulgaria are independent democracies, and they owe their freedom, first to their own efforts, and secondly to Russia. Hitherto Russia has got nothing in return for all these efforts except Bessarabia—a doubtful boon. She has not even got access to warm water and the world's oceans through the closed Dardanelles. In Sofia (Bulgaria's noble city, which thirty years ago was a dirty Turkish village) there stands in the grand square before the Parliament house the equestrian statue of the Czar Liberator—the Russian despot who freed Bulgaria in the war of 1877.

And what was Austria's rôle during these nineteenth-century wars of liberation? Her rôle was to remain neutral as between Turk and Christian, and to carry off as much as she could in the scramble. When Bosnia, an entirely Serb province, bravely revolted against the Turk, Austria took Bosnia for herself—by occupation, in 1878, followed by a long war against the Serb inhabitants, and by formal annexation in 1908. She thus increased the number of South Slavs in her dominions to nearly seven millions, and so compensated herself for the Italian possessions which she had recently lost.

Outside the borders of Austria-Hungary lie the two independent South Slav states, Montenegro and Serbia. Their very proximity to the oppressed South Slavs of Bosnia naturally causes friction with the Austro-Hungarian oppressor. Unfortunately, the Serbians of independent Serbia have not only this standing quarrel with Austria, but a standing quarrel with Bulgaria also. For since the war of 1913 Serbia holds territory down south which the Bulgarians regard as rightly belonging to themselves—the vexed region of northern Macedonia, including the Vardar Valley and coveted Monastir. The possession of Monastir and the Vardar Valley is a more difficult question than either Serbian or Bulgarian sympathizers are wont to admit. Macedonia is a mixture of races—Greek, Turk, Albanian, Vlach, Bulgar, Serb, and Macedonian Slav. The Macedonian Slavs are the most important race, akin to both Serbian and Bulgarian but not identical with either. But in the generation prior to 1912 Bulgaria was stronger in Macedonia than Serbia, and the Bulgarian claim is strong.

On the other hand, the Serbian standpoint in regard to Macedonia is clear. The Vardar Valley and railway, terminating in friendly Greek territory at Salonika, is Serbia's only connection with the rest of the world. She cannot part with it until she has got some other exit for her commerce not dominated by her enemy Austria, who blocks all her routes to the north and denies her expansion to the Adriatic. In the present war, if it were not for the supplies which Serbia has got up the Vardar Valley from Western Europe (by way of Salonika), she would months ago have been conquered by Austria. And in times of peace the Vardar line is equally vital to her commerce and connection with the world. Austria blocks her to north and west and drives her to seek an exit to the south. In 1913, Austria threatened us all with a European war rather than let Serbia get an outlet on the Adriatic. Austria won her point then, but we have got the European war after all. Because Serbia was not allowed to get out to the Adriatic after the Turkish war, she had to cling to Macedonia and the Greek connection as her only other outlet to the sea. At the same time, Austria's attitude encouraged King Ferdinand of Bulgaria to attack Serbia and Greece, instead of going to arbitration. The consequence was the fatal war of 1913 between the Christian allies—a triumph for Austrian diplomacy. That war prevented and still prevents a Balkan league against Austria.

Let us be fair to these Balkan states. If they fought savage wars against each other, and if they now fail to agree, the issues are real and vital, and difficult beyond the comprehension of those who have not studied them closely. The Macedonian problem presented real difficulties to any peaceful solution. These difficulties, greatly aggravated by the policy of Austria, caused the Second Balkan War. It was a wicked war, but there was far more reason for it than there is for the present war between the great powers. The great powers might have prevented the Second Balkan War, but instead of that Austria did her best to bring it about by denying Serbia access to the sea except by way of Macedonia and Salonika. Finally, when Serbia had disappointed Austria by emerging victorious over Bulgaria, Austria proposed to Italy to make an unprovoked attack upon Serbia, in August, 1913, nearly a year before the Sarajevo murders. Italy refused. This significant fact of secret diplomacy was recently revealed in the Italian Chamber by Signor Giolitti himself, to whom the proposal was made.

Why is Austria-Hungary so jealous of Serbia? Because she is breaking down the South Slav races within her own borders, and therefore an independent South Slav state must either be her vassal or her deadly foe. Serbia stands toward Austria in the same relation that little Piedmont once stood to her in Italy.

Again, let us be just to these Balkan races. While they were under the Turk we idealized them as Christian martyrs, and when they threw off that yoke we were surprised to find that after five hundred years of crushing barbarian rule they were not more perfect than ourselves. It is not the only case in history of an enslaved race being over-idealized until it had been set free, and then being unreasonably abused for not coming up to impossible expectations.

There is no doubt that the Second Balkan War caused a great revulsion of feeling throughout the world against Serbian, Greek, and Bulgarian. This was much enhanced when Mr. Carnegie's Commission published its Report on the Causes and Conduct of the Second Balkan War. I do not think that report was the last word on the causes of the war, but it established beyond question the fact that atrocities had been committed in its conduct. But those atrocities by Serbians, Bulgarians, and Greeks in 1913 have now to be set side by side with the atrocities committed by the Austro-Hungarian troops in Serbia, near Shabatz and Losnitza, in the middle days of August, 1914. The Austro-Hungarian troops then and there murdered two to three thousand civilians, burning many women and children alive, and committing the most ghoulish outrages on many others.

I have visited the scenes of these events, and I have the proofs and details under my hand.* [* First-hand evidence has been given to the world in the article by Dr. Reiss of Lausanne University in the Revue de Paris, April 1, 1915, as well as in the Serbian government report, drawn up on evidence taken by Dr. Jules Schmidt of Switzerland and Dr. Arius Van Tienhoven of The Hague, Holland. —THE AUTHOR.] So far as I was able to ascertain, the Serbians have committed no reprisals. Their 60,000 Austrian prisoners in Serbia have no stories of such reprisals; they have no complaints to make, and in the hospitals the Austrian wounded are given absolute equality of treatment with the Serbian. The Serbians are less barbarous than their great 'civilized' neighbor.

II

The Serbs of independent Serbia offer to the student of political philosophy one of the rare examples of a purely democratic society. Serbia is far more democratic than either America or England. In our countries wealth is very unequally divided; we can only redress these social inequalities in our politics. In Serbia no one talks about democracy, because they are all democrats. It is no more necessary to emphasize the fact of democracy in Serbia than it is for the human body to emphasize the function of breathing. There is only one important class—the peasant proprietors, who number eighty-six per cent of the population. There is practically only one kind of wealth—land—and that is equally divided up. There is no pauperism, and on the other hand no one is really rich. There is therefore no social problem in Serbia, and consequently no politics except foreign politics.

This pure form of democracy has both advantages and disadvantages. The average Serbian is as fine a fellow as you could wish to meet, and in peace time he and his family live, perhaps, a happier and better life in their red-roofed farm set in the orchard, than most of the denizens of our American and English cities. On the other hand the state sadly lacks leadership in industry, politics, and administration.

For good and for evil there is no landlord class and practically no mercantile class, and only such industries as every agricultural village requires. The great traditions of the 'gentleman,' the 'merchant,' and the 'workman' which have done so much to mould Western Europe and America, have no existence among the Serbians. They are all 'yeomen.' The Turks killed off the 'gentleman' class, the mediæval Serbian nobility, and effectually prevented the 'merchant' from arising. And since then the Austrians, by cutting off Serbia from the sea and from communication with Europe, have helped to prevent what we call the 'development' of her mineral resources, or the rise of a modern industrial class, such as we now find in nearly every other nation, including even Russia.

If, as a result of the present war, the Serbians get down to the Adriatic and so come into contact with England and the other countries of Western Europe, this primitive society will gradually be modified. Nearly all the Serbians ardently desire this change; they desire to get out of the 'sack' in which, as they say, Austria has tied them up. But I met one Serbian, an artillery officer, a thoughtful man who had studied at Paris and Vienna, who held other views. He said that he deprecated the change though he was fighting to bring it about; because, he said, the virtues of the Serbian peasant were due to his isolation from all contact with the corrupt modern civilization of Europe. People who have read about the Serbians only in books written by their enemies may laugh at this saying. Having seen the Serbians, I do not laugh, though I do not agree with so conservative a doctrine.

The professional and administrative classes of Serbia are improvised; they are peasants at one remove, mostly born on the farm. They lack professional tradition. Hence the poor standard of civil administration, the bad organization which one so often notices, the political scandals which culminated in the regicide of 1903, and have since then been improved away, until we now have the rule of the able and excellent M. Pashich, a Prime Minister that any country might envy.

The leading class is improvised, and the best of it goes into the army. At one time and another I have spent more than two months mainly in the company of Serbian officers, and I have the greatest respect for the intellectual and moral qualities of many of them as shown in their conversation. For their professional merits, the world can refer to their deeds in battle. Their popularity with their 'brother' soldiers, whom they command not on any system of caste, but as copartners in the national defense, recalls the French officers of the armies of the First Republic. There is no class division between them and the men they command, only a difference of education. You may see them dancing the kolo, the pretty national dance of interwoven steps, hand in hand with their men. When it comes to the charge, they say, not 'Forward, men,' but 'Let us charge, brothers.'

But after all, the private (infantryman)—the peasant soldier, who has come from tilling his own farm—is the backbone of the Serbian army. It is the stout yeomen, free and equal brothers in arms, who drove an Austrian host of 400,000, twice as numerous as themselves, in headlong rout out of the Serbian soil, and captured all their artillery. That victory of the Serbians last December is the most thrilling feat of arms that this war has anywhere witnessed, as a triumph of the human spirit against material odds. It was a victory in which Washington or Garibaldi would have loved to take part. The Serbians won because they were freemen—accustomed to liberty at home, fighting to save their country from a host of war-slaves who spoke six different languages and were for the most part lukewarm or hostile to the cause in which they were compelled to fight. The patriotism of the Serbian surpasses the patriotism of any nation engaged in this war. For they are free and equal at home, and they have no class divisions; there is no arrière pensée in their devotion to their country's cause. They have no politics except patriotism, no loyalty except to their country. There is no nation in Europe so much at one with itself and with its government.

But the Serbians have not always been at one with their government. They have sometimes had very bad and unpopular governments. Since the origin of the state a hundred years ago, under the hero Kara George and his wise successor Milosh Obrenovitch, this simple peasant community has on several occasions fallen into bad hands. It has had some very poor luck with its kings, though the present king and crown prince are both excellent. The worst kings of all reigned during the last part of the nineteenth century. They were Kings Milan and Alexander, who made their country the vassal of Austria, and at Austria's behest made an unprovoked attack on Bulgaria in 1885. That war was most unpopular with the mass of the Serbians, who therefore fought badly and got Serbia a very bad military reputation, which lasted until 1912. Finally King Alexander suspended the democratic constitution and set up a tyranny, and a very inefficient tyranny at that. The country was going to anarchy, and Alexander had to be dethroned. Unfortunately, instead of being decently dethroned, he was murdered in a peculiarly brutal manner in 1903. All that Europe knew about Serbia was the fact of this murder, and for long Europe judged Serbia by that alone.

This deficiency in the higher branches of government, natural to a peasant democracy, put Serbia back for a generation or more. She had begun her independent existence (in the northwest corner of her present territory) sixty years before any part of Bulgaria was set free, and she ought therefore to have remained ahead in the race of progress. Yet at the close of the nineteenth century she dropped behind Bulgaria in education, in the arts of life, and in military proficiency. Bulgaria, though a peasant democracy like Serbia, had the great advantage of a group of leaders educated at the American Robert College, Constantinople. So Bulgaria, in the first generation of her independent existence, forged ahead, and from 1878 to 1913 every one courted Bulgaria and despised Serbia. The enemies of Turkish rule, like the British Balkan Committee, looked to the Bulgarian army to deliver the Balkan Christians, and scarcely visited Serbia. The Macedonians looked for deliverance to Sofia, not to Belgrade. To Europe in general the Serbians were an unknown race, dwelling somewhere in the interior of Eastern Europe. People forgot that the Serbians, under Kara George and Milosh Obrenovitch, had won their liberty from the Turk earlier—and with less help from outside—than Greeks, Roumanians, or Bulgars.

Yet during these years when they were held in such contempt, a remarkable national revival was going on. The present King Peter restored parliamentary government, and presided as a constitutional monarch over the resumed democratic life of the nation. M. Pashich, a man of high honor and ability, was chosen as the people's premier, and he has done almost as much for Serbia as M. Venizelos for Greece. Education and administration were greatly improved. Above all, the army was made efficient.

The change for the good was most rapid after 1908. In that year Austria proclaimed the formal annexation of the Serb province of Bosnia, which she had occupied for thirty years past. This outrage on Serb race-feeling stung the Serbians to the quick, and from that moment they pulled themselves together and began to arm in real earnest. A national moral revival was observed by the very few who watched Serbia. But Turk, Bulgar, and Austrian despised Serbia too much to observe the change. And consequently in three successive years—1912, 1913, and 1914—Turk, Bulgar, and Austrian have suffered most unexpected defeats at the hands of the Serbian army.

III

The Croat section of the South Slav race inhabits principally Dalmatia and Croatia. The Croats are practically the same in race and language as the Serbs, but differ in religion, being Roman Catholics. The movement for the political union of these two branches of the South Slav race has grown rapidly in the past few years, though it is still opposed by one party among the Croats, the party of M. Frank.

Prior to 1868 the various races of Austria-Hungary were ruled by the German-Austrians by the sword. In 1848 the Magyars of Hungary attempted to get free, under the leadership of Kossuth, but they were suppressed by Vienna. Their defeat was largely owing to the great Kossuth's great mistake in refusing to take the Roumanians, Slovaks, and South Slavs into partnership with the Magyars. Kossuth's policy of forcibly 'magyarizing' all these races of Hungary has become the permanent policy of the race of which he is the hero. Twenty years passed, and in 1868 the Austrians of Vienna found they could no longer rule their immense empire alone, and took the Magyars into partnership. Since then the German-Austrians and the Magyars have divided between them the government of the various races of the Empire—South Slavs and Italians, and further north, Slovaks, Ruthenes, Poles, and Czechs. An empire so heterogeneous in race as Austria-Hungary must either be a despotism ruled by the sword, or a land of federal liberty. Since 1868 it has halted between these two paths, the Magyars pulling toward despotism, while the German-Austrians showed some inclination toward liberalism in their treatment of the Poles. But the test case was the treatment of the South Slav race, part of which was in Hungary under the Magyars, part in Dalmatia under the Austrians, and part under their joint rule in Bosnia. Unfortunately in the past few years the Magyars have dragged Austria after them in the domestic policy of repression of South Slav national consciousness. The worst incidents of oppression have been the most recent. In 1908-09, the scandalous treason trial of Agram unjustly condemned a number of Croat leaders to prison. To justify this reign of terror, forged documents were published which had been procured by the Austrian Minister at Belgrade, Count Forgach. His crime was exposed in the Friedjung trial at Vienna, and by the work of Professor Massaryh, but he was not disgraced and became Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs in Vienna. The exposure of the Austrian Dreyfus case made no difference to men or policy. It was this Count Forgach who recently had the face to accuse the Serbian government of connivance in the murder of the Archduke last summer.

In 1912 the Constitution of Croatia was suspended by arbitrary decree of the Hungarian Premier. This drew the Croatians nearer to the Serbs and made something of a working alliance between the two branches of the South Slav race. Since then the Austrians have followed the Magyar lead, and applied the military system of arrests and terrorism to the Croats of Dalmatia. The Magyars, in the same year 1912, also abolished the constitution of the Serb Orthodox Church in Hungary and seized its funds, and a year later the Patriarch Bogdanovic committed suicide in despair.

IV

The present war was in its origin a 'punitive expedition' against the Serbians, for having the impudence to sympathize with their brother Serbs and Croats in Austria-Hungary. The expedition was to have been made in August, 1913, as Signor Giolitti recently revealed to the world, but owing to Italy's refusal to join in a war of aggression it was postponed for a year, until the murder of the Archduke by Austrian Serb subjects seemed a fitting opportunity to wipe independent Serbia off the map.

There will be no peace in Europe until the subject populations of Austria-Hungary obtain liberty in one form or another. The rule of the sword cannot give permanent peace. The terrorism existing in the South Slav provinces of Austria-Hungary since the war began is as bad as anything in the annals of oppression. The Austrians have recently driven scores of thousands of Bosnian Serb peasants—men, women, and children—out of Bosnia into Montenegro, to starve or perish there. The leaders of the subject populations are in prison, or in exile, where I have met many of them; the young men are all under the dread surveillance of military discipline in the conscript army. It is because the young men are all drafted into the army the moment there is any sign of trouble, that there can be no revolution attempted in any part of Europe to-day. The modern militarist organization makes revolutions impossible. That is why Europe is in very great danger of falling under a system of tyranny which will be far more impregnable to assault and far more pitiless to prayer than the tyrannies against which the peoples of Europe rebelled in 1848. We are told that the time for small states has gone by. But if the big empires that devour them deny all racial, cultural, and political liberty within their borders, and turn all their subjects, irrespective of personal or racial differences, into so many pieces of a grinding military machine, then the extinction of little democracies like Serbia (and others elsewhere) would mean the extinction of human freedom and of all that is noblest in the spirit of man.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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