Serbia: The Buffer State

By Lazare Marcovitch

[The Yale Review, October 1917]

When at Sarajevo, on the twenty-eighth of June, 1914, a young Serbian of Bosnian origin and an Austrian subject, a fanatic patriot, Gavrilo Princip, assassinated the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the crime caused widespread consternation, especially in the Jugo-Slav provinces of the Dual Monarchy. The Austro-Hungarian press, following a signal from the Ballplatz, proclaimed Serbia and the Serbian people culpable of the crime, and notwithstanding the absurdity of such an accusation, it was maintained and developed in an alarming manner. But the official circles of Vienna showed an unaccustomed reserve; and their attitude made optimists believe, for the moment, that the press accusations against Serbia would terminate as soon as the result of the official investigation was known. In the meantime, the Serbian government maintained a strictly correct attitude and expressed to the Austrian minister at Belgrade its indignation at the crime, awaiting communications about the inquiry which might, or might not, reveal the complicity of Serbian subjects. The Austrian authorities did not publish anything about the result of the inquiry; and the Serbian public, occupied with the elections in the country, had nearly ceased to speak of the Sarajevo crime, supposing that the culprits and their accomplices would be condemned by the proper tribunals; the Austro-German diplomats made reassuring declarations which produced a favorable impression and calmed public opinion in Europe; the German Emperor was cruising in Norwegian waters; the majority of the foreign ministers were already in the country—when, on the twenty-third of July came the telegram from Vienna, sent to the four quarters of the globe, announcing that Austria-Hungary had delivered an ultimatum to Serbia containing ten demands which must be granted within forty-eight hours.

By this ultimatum, as is well known, the Austro-Hungarian government made official and unofficial Serbia responsible for the Sarajevo crime and demanded from the Serbian government a solemn declaration that it disapproved and repudiated all idea of interference in the destinies of the inhabitants of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. The time for considering the ultimatum, between its delivery on Thursday at five o'clock in the afternoon and the limit set for the reply, six o'clock on Saturday afternoon, was shortened by the fact, known to the Austrians, that the Serbian Prime Minister, Pashitch, was in the interior of the country occupied with the elections, and could not reach Belgrade until Friday about mid-day. Hence the Serbian government had hardly more than a day to reply to the Austrian note, which was so humiliating to the whole Serbian nation and which contained no proofs whatever of the alleged facts. The menace was therefore very clear, and it was evident that Austria wanted the conflict. Although no one believed that an independent state, a free people, mindful of its present and future responsibilities, could accept such a note, the Serbian government nevertheless had the moral courage to make the greatest sacrifices in the interests of peace, and to accept the Austrian ultimatum on all points with only two unimportant reservations. Moreover, the Serbian government added that if Austria-Hungary was not satisfied with this answer, it proposed to submit the whole question to the decision of the Hague International Tribunal or to the arbitration of the great powers. These proposals the Austrian government refused to accept. On the twenty-eighth of July, it declared war on Serbia and began hostilities, and in a few days, in spite of the pacific efforts of the Entente Powers, the whole of Europe was in flames.

Thus it is clear that Serbia is in no way responsible for the European war. Accused unjustly and menaced arrogantly by the Austrian ultimatum, Serbia yielded despite all the humiliation and injury that it threatened. The Serbian reply constitutes, indeed, the gravest ground for accusation against the Germanic Empires and is the best proof that they wished for war at any price. Though the aggression was to precipitate a general war, the Hapsburg monarchy did not hesitate to cross the Serbian frontier and to render impossible, by its irreconcilable attitude, the pacific solution of a conflict which it had itself intentionally provoked. Even the most complete submission of Serbia to this malevolent power could not save the little people from the lot which Vienna and Berlin had prepared for them. It is necessary to recall these events and to explain at the same time the reasons for this great rage against a small country, and this firm resolution on the part of Austria to risk even a general war.

It has now become clear why Serbia had to be crushed and exposed to cruel sufferings. The reasons, known to Serbia for a long time, may be divided into two groups according as they affect Austria-Hungary or Germany. First, the purely German reasons must be examined. To the casual observer Serbia would not seem to have for Germany any particular interest. To those who have followed closely the development of German power and the successive steps in the Germanic plans of world domination, the question appears in a different light. In the history of the relations of modern Germany with Austria the German design may be traced. After having established a solid base in the North in 1864 through the conquest of Schleswig-Holstein, Prussia made war on Austria in 1866 and by a coup de force succeeded in dominating this power from Germanic affairs and pushing it towards the East. With the desire of completely setting herself free from Austria, Prussia gave her support to the formation of the Dual Monarchy, and it was under her auspices that the Austro-Magyar agreement of 1867 was concluded. By this agreement, the character of Austria was changed; from a Germanic and centralized state, it became a dual government. In this new form the Hapsburg monarchy could not seriously pretend to the succession of the old German Empire, and Prussia was now free to undertake the task of achieving German unity and of accomplishing the Germanic mission. After 1870, under Bismarck who gave to the newly formed federal German state an organization which assured predomination for all time to militarist and anti-parliamentarist Prussia, the German Empire initiated its politique mondiale. Having developed a formidable industry and an imposing commerce, it was not contented with its actual possessions and planned new acquisitions. These were projected in two directions.

On the one hand, Germany wished to become a sea power of the first order, so as to impose her will on England. On the other hand, she sought to extend her Continental possessions, turning, for this purpose, towards the East. The famous German Drang nach Osten is not a mere phrase, for it expresses the essence of recent German foreign policy. Among the European powers Germany had to choose between Russia and Austria-Hungary for her alliance, and an alliance with the latter against the former best suited her plans of conquest and of domination. If Germany had contracted an alliance with Russia, Austria-Hungary, as a superannuated historical formation, would have been dismembered in the interest of Europe; her peoples would have been liberated and would have grouped themselves into small nationalistic states. In the place of Austria-Hungary, there would exist to-day Serbia or Jugoslavia, embracing the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, who are one and the same people; a Bohemia; a Hungary purely Magyar, without the Jugo-Slavs and Rumanians; and a Poland. With these states, Rumania, Bulgaria, and Greece would be associated, and a federation of them would comprise all the Balkan peninsula and the southern part of central Europe. The purely German provinces of Austria would have been annexed to Germany.

If Germany had had a true conception of civilization and a real desire to promote its best interests, she would have facilitated this realignment of states grouped according to the desires of the peoples concerned. Moreover, by such a combination she would have gained economic advantages and probably a commercial débouché on the Adriatic at Trieste. Turkey would have been driven out of Europe, her Christian subjects liberated from a most odious regime; and all nations might to-day be living in peace and quiet.

But Germany preferred the alliance with Austria-Hungary, the maintenance and the preservation of this anachronous state, the subjection of the Slav peoples, and a vigorous pushing movement towards the East. In maintaining this monarchy, the German Empire reserved for itself the fifty million inhabitants of Austria-Hungary, who could contribute five million bayonets, amongst them three million Slav soldiers. After having secured Austria, Germany passed on to the Balkans and monopolized Bulgaria and Turkey. In Turkey, it sought at first only economic concessions, such as the Bagdad Railway, believing that after the economic pledges, the political acquisitions would naturally follow. But the route to Constantinople and Bagdad was barred by Serbia. Serbia was not willing to assist in the German plans of expansion towards the East, and that is the reason why it was decided by Germany that she must be crushed.

To Austria-Hungary Serbia presented an equally serious obstacle in her separate plans for expansion. After the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Hapsburg monarchy proposed to descend by the Vardar valley to Salonica. Germany by Constantinople to Bagdad, and Austria-Hungary by the Vardar valley to Salonica—these were the two principal ambitions of the Central Powers. The German leaders, who used the Dual Monarchy to forward their plans, could not refuse her some small gains, especially as the desire of Austria to establish herself at Salonica was not in opposition to the German policy of territorial expansion.

But Austria-Hungary had still another motive for wishing to annihilate Serbia. In Austria-Hungary there are eight million Jugo-Slavs (Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes) who speak the same language and have the same aspirations. These Jugo-Slavs regard Serbia as their Piedmont; and it is to the free and democratic Serbian kingdom that they look for their deliverance from the Austro-Magyar yoke. Until the Balkan wars, Austria considered Serbia a state without vitality and destined to remain powerless. The credit of Serbia was especially low during the reigns of the two last Obrenovitches; and Austria then hoped to surmount the Serbian obstacle without difficulty. But after the accession of King Peter Karageorgevitch, after the restoration of the democratic constitution of 1888 and the introduction of a parliamentary regime in its purest form, Serbian credit rose again, and the country showed astonishing progress in many directions. Then came the wars with Turkey in 1912 and with Bulgaria in 1913. They revealed an extraordinary vitality in Serbia and ended in a brilliant victory and a still greater increase of strength for the little kingdom.

The Serbian victories found a formidable echo in the Slav provinces of the Hapsburg monarchy. Indeed, they were celebrated there more than in Serbia itself. They revived the hopes of an approaching liberation and put an end to the Austrian plans of taking advantage of Serbia's weakness to annex her as Herzegovina had been annexed. The Serbian or Jugo-Slav question suddenly appeared in all its fulness. Instead of descending to Salonica by the Morava and Vardar valleys, the Hapsburg monarchy found itself obliged to direct its efforts towards crushing the movement of its Slav population for liberty. Austrian rage against Serbia is therefore quite comprehensible.

The rôle played by the Magyars in the Austrian oppression of the Jugo-Slavs deserves to be better known. The Magyars for a long time duped public opinion in Europe and America, representing themselves as a liberal and chivalrous people. In reality there is no nationality so unscrupulous in the oppression of others and so clever in concealing their true nature. A detailed account of recent Magyar history will be found in Theodor von Sosnovsky's valuable work, "Die Politik im Habsburger Reiche." This book, published in Berlin in 1913, contains the truth about the ruthless policy of magyarization pursued by this Mongolian people towards the Slavs. The Magyars, like the god Janus, are double-faced: before foreigners they pose as a democratic and liberal nation, while at home they are responsible for tyranny and denationalization. As von Sosnovsky is an Austrian, he cannot be suspected of any partiality towards the Jugo-Slavs, and his denunciation of the brutal and violent character of Magyar policy must be regarded as perfectly justified. In considering the attitude of Hungary, it should be remembered that of its 19,254,600 inhabitants there are not more than 8,742,300. Magyars while there are 10,512,300, or over fifty-four per cent, non-Magyars. Yet the Magyars, in spite of this, affirm that their country is homogeneous and "national," and they do not recognize any nationality but their own. Even the democratic party of the well-known Count Michel Carolyi knows only the "Hungarians." Now, these Magyars, who hold in their power ten million non-Magyars, of whom there are six million Jugo-Slavs, have declared themselves ready to make every sacrifice in supporting the German plans in order to maintain their own domination. They have helped Germany and Austria to crush Serbia, and they are continuing their anti-Slav policy with the object of preventing Jugo-Slav unification, by which they would lose half of their present possessions.

The German ambition to open the way to Bagdad, the Austrian ambition to get to Salonica and strangle the movement of the Slav peoples, the Magyar ambition to preserve their domination over the non-Magyar majority, and the ambition of all three together to secure an economic monopoly of the Balkans—such, are the principal reasons why these three nations hurled themselves on Serbia. Germany was certainly the leader, and in August, 1914, she considered that the time had come to declare war. She knew very well what the consequences of an attack on Serbia would be, but she accepted them in advance, and her plans have been duly carried out.

The war that Austria-Hungary has waged against Serbia resembles the wars of extermination in ancient times. It is a war against the Serbian people rather than against the state. The Dual Monarchy called it a "punitive expedition," and she has given formal orders to her army commanders to spare no one, neither soldiers nor civilians, neither women nor children. It would be impossible here to describe the Austro-Hungarian atrocities. The author of this article was a member of the Commission of Inquiry—appointed by the Serbian government, under the chairmanship of Sima Lozanitch, a former Serbian minister of foreign affairs and president of the Royal Serbian Academy—which collected documents and evidence regarding the atrocities committed by the Austrian army in Serbia. The result of the inquiry when officially published will constitute a terrible indictment of Austria-Hungary.

Between August and December, 1914, the Austro-Hungarian troops three times began an offensive against Serbia, and each time they were repulsed. These offensives caused great damage: whole villages were destroyed, and many districts were infected by epidemics, which plunged the country into a deplorable condition. During the first half of the year 1915, all Serbian efforts were directed towards combating, with the help of foreign medical missions (amongst them several from America), these infectious diseases. In September, 1915, Austria-Hungary, reinforced by German troops under von Mackensen, attacked Serbia for the fourth time. This was not all. When the Serbian army was defending the Danube and the Save passages in the North, the Bulgarians fell upon their rear. Attacked on three sides, the Serbs—abandoned and alone, the promised help of the Allies not reaching them in time—were obliged to retreat. This tragic retreat across Albania has been rightly called the Calvary of the Serbian people. The writer also crossed Albania, and he could fill volumes with the sufferings endured by the soldiers and civilians on that retreat. Yet despite all their sufferings our people have not lost courage. The Serbian army, reduced in numbers but animated by the old spirit of sacrifice and service, is once more striving in the Macedonian mountains to reconquer the country.

Although the Serbians did not wish for war, they have defended themselves with all the energy of a nation jealous of honor and determined to live free and independent. This struggle is for our people—all Serbs understood it immediately—a life-and-death struggle. It seems tragic that in this twentieth century, a people possessing rare qualities should be forced to sacrifice the best of their sons, only to have the right to live in freedom, but this is the case. The war will therefore end either in the deliverance of the Serbian nation from Austro-Magyar domination, or in the utter destruction of the whole Jugo-Slav race.

The sacrifices already made by Serbians in the course of this war, have been so great that it is quite impossible for us to imagine any other issue than the deliverance not only of Serbia, but of all the Serbian or Jugo-Slav provinces—Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Slavonia, Syrmia, Dalmatia, Slovenia, Banat, and Batchka—which are now under Austro-Hungarian rule. All these provinces are inhabited by one and the same people, speaking the same language, having the same traditions and the same aspirations. Our nation, which has three names (Serb, Croat, and Slovene) but only one mentality, possesses a culture of its own., half oriental and half occidental. It has a rich literature, and has produced eminent researchers in all branches of science. It cultivates the arts, loves music, and aspires to contribute its share towards the solution of all modern social questions. And a large part of this highly cultured people lives under the mediaeval yoke of Austria-Hungary, without the most fundamental rights!

The part of the Serbian race which lives free and independent in the kingdom of Serbia, has made astonishing progress in the last few decades. The government has solved one of its most important social problems, the agrarian question. All Serbs in the kingdom are—or were before the war—small proprietors, all are free, and their property is legally protected as freehold. The Serbian nation is, moreover, democratic and self-governing. Although very young, the Serbian state has a political organization comparable to that of Belgium, France, or England. It is this democratic organization which makes Austria-Hungary, a reactionary country, governed by a feudal aristocracy, look upon Serbia as a danger to her existence. In other directions, there has also been considerable progress in Serbia in spite of difficulties. We have, for instance, a university at Belgrade—now half destroyed by Austrian shells and pillaged after the occupation—which would compare favorably with other European universities. We have an Academy of Science, the members of which are also members of foreign academies. We feel that we have a right to be proud of the intellectual and moral character of our nation. All this has produced amongst us a certain consciousness—which is our most remarkable national trait—the consciousness that we are a formed people.

We wish to live according to our own desire; we will not allow ourselves to be ruled either by the Magyars, despite their Mongolian titles, or by the Austrians, who claim a traditional "right" to govern other races, or even by the Germans, in spite of their conviction of "being a "chosen" people. We wish only to he free.

It is the essential condition of civilization that all peoples should be free, and this postulate is equally the chief condition of international peace. A durable peace is not to be thought of, so long as one nation treads under foot another nation and constantly seeks to extend its domination and to subjugate still other nations. Peace under such conditions is impossible. It is necessary first to deliver the oppressed nations and then to reconstruct the international community of free peoples. This is the ideal of the Serbian people, this is the device of Serbia—her profession of faith—which we do not abandon. Amongst the oppressed nations, it is the Serbian or Jugo-Slav who suffers most, and who waits for redemption. On the other hand, amongst the usurping states, which do not deserve to rule over any people, which represent nothing but a historical fiction, maintained only in the interest of a little group of pretenders, Austria-Hungary stands first. Without her decomposition, there can be no peace, no international security.

Besides this political sympathy, for which the oppressed Serbian people have not looked in vain to America, we hope much from the generosity of the American nation, which has already done such notable work in alleviating misery in Belgium, Poland, arid also in Serbia, and which alone is able to preserve our population from complete destruction. The Serbian people have been deprived of all that they possessed. Literally, they have nothing. Grateful as we are for all that America is doing for us in this time of suffering and exile, we trust that when the great day of the liberation of Serbia comes, American generosity will find in our ravaged country an even larger scope for its activity.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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