The Theft of a Nation
Austro-Bulgarian Methods In Serbia

By E. M. Chadwick

[The Outlook, August 14, 1918]

[The writer of this article has made a careful study of conditions in the Near East and writes from direct knowledge. It will be noted that the sources of information drawn upon are first-hand; and authenticated. They include Serbian official reports, reports of responsible neutral observers, and statements made by leading Bulgar statesmen and Bulgar newspapers of different shades of political opinion.—THE EDITORS]

The vilest campaign of the whole war is being carried on in Serbia at this moment. All countries that have fallen into the enemy's power have had to face massacre, oppression, deportation; and of all these Serbia has had her share—far more than her share. She has lost outright about twenty-five per cent of her population since the war began, and, in addition, hundreds of thousands of her people have been carried into bondage—in Austria-Hungary, where they die like flies in pestilential internment camps, starved, half-clad, diseased, and overworked; in Bulgaria and in Asia Minor, where they meet the fate of the Armenians in the deserts. Her little girls, the future mothers of that Serbia for which the Serbs to-day are fighting and dying, have been carried off in thousands by their Bulgarian masters, and sold (or given, I know not which) into the Turkish harems of Constantinople. The indecency of this betrayal of Christians by Christians to the Turks needs no comment to emphasize it.

But this is not all. There is a deliberate campaign afoot—it has been going on for two years and more—to root out the Serbian nation altogether from the Balkan Peninsula, where it belongs as fully and completely as any nation belongs anywhere. The massacres and deportations, the starvation and misery, have removed a vast number of the people; but you cannot destroy the whole of a nation by such means as these. Turkey has tried it for generations with the Armenians, and there are still thousands of people alive who are passionately and vociferously Armenian. Austria and Bulgaria, which between them control Serbia to-day, have subtler methods. Bulgaria, in every phase of the work, goes much further than Austria (whether because she is more wicked or less afraid I cannot say); but there is such overwhelming evidence of full co-operation between the two that Austria cannot escape her share of the blame, not only for her own iniquities, but for Bulgaria's too.

To put the matter in a nutshell, the two allies are seeking to denationalize all the Serbs that they cannot kill. There are practically no men in the country now except the old and infirm, who can help their own people little more than they can harm the invaders. With all the forces of starvation, suffering, and the constant fear of deportation or death to aid in the work, it should not be difficult to rob a population of hungry and helpless women and children even of their nationality. If there are still Serbs in Serbia—Serbs, as, distinct from mere nondescript humans—it is because the innate heroism and tenacity of the race support even these lonely women and desolate children.

Austria and Bulgaria are removing from the Serbia territories everything, tangible and intangible that is specifically Serb. Every museum in the country which contained national treasures has been rifled and its contents scattered through the enemy countries. The ancient monasteries, superb specimens of mediaeval Serbian art and storehouses of sacred relics of the great days of the Serbian Empire, have been sacked and ruined. Even the Turks throughout their long and cruel rule in Serbia respected the monasteries. It remained for Christian Austria and Christian Bulgaria to lay on them the hand of desecration.

Detchani, above all,, held in such, reverence throughout the Balkans that Turkish sultans even issued special firmans to protect it, and legend said that whoso laid hands upon it should come to certain death—Detchani the sacred, the Rheims (and more than Rheims) of Serbia, where gems, jewels, manuscripts, banners, all-testified to the glory that was hers in days gone by—Detchani has been sacked; and the stained hands that sacked it are fighting already among themselves for the loot.

Not alone, the national treasures are gone, but every inscription carved on the stones of churches, monasteries, bridges that bore witness to their erection by old Serbian kings, has been erased by hammer and ax. In short, every silent witness to historic Serbian occupation and Serbian culture has been removed. There are no evidences left of the splendid days of Stephan Dushan, of Marko the King's Son, of saintly Lazar, and the great Knights of Kossovo Field. There is nothing but a ravaged land filled with tortured women and children who dare not even mourn in their own tongue.

That is the crowning atrocity. They are trying to kill the very language of the land. They know—none better—that so long as there are people speaking the Serbian tongue, reading Serbian books, so long will there be a Serbian nation, and the land will be Serbia, no matter what its masters may call, it. Mere physical hardships cannot destroy a people in whom the national spirit flames so high as in the Serbs.

Austria has confiscated all books that are distinctively Serbian in, character. Under her ban come all the wonderful collections of mediaeval ballads—probably the very finest achievement of Serbian art. These ballads, by their heroic narratives of old Serbian glories, contributed more than all else to the preservation of the national spirit through the dark centuries of Turkish oppression; and it is perhaps not surprising that Austria should fear them now. All collections of old Serbian literature have been rifled, and heavy penalties laid on those who failed to give up the books in their possession. The work of modern Serbian writers, such as the popular poets Branko Raditchevitch and Yovan Yovanovitch Zmaï, have been placed on the same Index Expurgatorius.

Bulgaria goes much further. Her authorities have invaded every house in two-thirds of Serbia which they control, and laid hands on everything printed or written in the Serbian language—books, magazines, newspapers, prospectuses of stores—everything from the Bibles and the children's textbooks to the ancient manuscripts in the monasteries. Bonfires were started in each town and village, into which there went every evidence of the Serbian tongue that was capable of being burned.* [* The canny Bulgar mind soon realized, however, that a source of tangible wealth was in the fury of the moment being burned into nothingness. Thereafter, by order of the Minister of Commerce, all Serbian books and MSS, were sold to the paper factories (at a cent and a half per pound) to be used for pulp!] Even this was not enough; they have prohibited the use of the Serbian language even in private correspondence. They have removed the Serbian names from the streets of Serbian cities and have substituted Bulgar names; they have robbed the very Serbian dead of their tombstones. They have, in fact, suppressed the written language altogether.

They are now engaged in killing the spoken language. They began with the children, as the least able to offer resistance. All Serbian schools have been closed, and the Serb teachers removed, many by murder and the rest by deportation, which is simply a slower form of murder. Austria, while she has, removed all Serb teachers, reorganized the schools on Hungarian lines, made the study of German and Magyar compulsory, and dressed the Serbian children in Austrian military uniforms, has at least respected the language to the extent of allowing the children to use it for most of their studies. But Bulgaria prohibits it altogether. She declines to recognize that Serbia or the Serbs exist any longer. There is no exaggeration in this statement, fantastic as it may seem. Only last February the Bulgarian Premier, in an interview with a correspondent of the Austrian "Neue Freie Presse," said, frankly: "For us Serbia has disappeared. We are in the Morava (eastern Serbia), and the Austrians occupy the rest of the country. Serbia no longer exists, and she gives us no anxiety." And a German "Liberal" statesman (Dr. Mueller-Meininger, of Bavaria) said after a visit to Bulgaria, "It is considered everywhere in Bulgaria that Serbia must be radically exterminated." So they proceed to "radically exterminate" her by denying the nationality of her children. If they are not Bulgars, they must be made Bulgars. So the children, who are the only hope of Serbia's future, are summoned to schools where Bulgar teachers instruct them in the Bulgar tongue (with special emphasis laid on correct pronunciation), and teach them that Serbia had no right to exist at all, and that the people who called themselves Serbs were only rebel Bulgars deserving the heaviest punishment. This byway of explanation of the unspeakable horrors these same children have witnessed in the massacre of their parents and the destruction of their homes.

This is indeed the most intolerable of all the bitter sorrows which the Serbs fighting still on the Macedonia frontier exiled in Allied and neutral countries have to endure—to know that the minds of the children, for whose future they are fighting and working, are being poisoned against their own country and their own race; that they are being trained as loyal subjects of the nation that has destroyed their people and robbed them of the long and splendid heritage of courage and chivalry that is the birthright of the Serbs. It is wholesale child-stealing of the vilest, the most cowardly, and withal the most scientific, kind. There is, so far as I can discover, no parallel for it even in the darkest pages of the world's history. It is infinitely to the honor of the brave Serbian women that the attendance at the schools has been so small that in a number of cases the Bulgars have simply had to close them.

The propaganda does not end with the children. The adults are being attacked by means of the reading-rooms. Remember, these helpless women and old men are cut off from all communication with the outside world. They can receive no news from their compatriots outside Serbia; they are not even allowed to communicate with the districts under Austrian control. They know nothing of what is happening in the rest of the world. Has Serbia still an army? or a Government? or is she really dead? Is the war still going on? How is it going? Have they any chance of release? They do not know. They know nothing but what the Bulgars choose to tell them, and they choose to tell them lies. Ever since the beginning of 1916 the Bulgarian Government has been opening reading-rooms in the occupied territories (in May, 1916, there were already 130) and filling them with Bulgarian literature, chiefly of the ultra-chauvinistic kind. Many pamphlets have been written specially for this purpose, filled with a mass of false evidence tending to show that the purely Serbian cities of Nish, Vrania, Skoplje, Pirot, etc., are historically and ethnographically Bulgar. Large credits have been voted for the purchase of books for these reading-rooms, which are quite frankly intended to Bulgarize the country. The blame for these measures cannot be laid at the door of the Bulgarian Government alone, for in the debates in the Sobranje every political party has supported the Government in its policy of Bulgarizing Serbia. The unhappy Serbs, living in that bitter darkness of isolation, hungry for any little crumb of news that they might find in a printed page, might well be expected to succumb to such methods. Those that are left in the country are largely people of slender education (the enemy took care at the beginning to eliminate the leading citizens of every district), who have not at hand the answers to the lies spread out before them in the reading-rooms. It is infinitely to their credit that, so far as can be discovered, they are resisting to the utmost all efforts to confuse and mislead them, and are as valiantly and loyally faithful to their own race as they ever were.

The people are even being made to give up their own names. The characteristic Serbian termination "id" (itch) has disappeared, and the Serbs of eastern Serbia have had the Bulgar "off" tacked on to their names. You will not find an Ivanic or Savic or a Petrovic in the whole country to-day; they are all, on pain of death, Ivanoff, Savoff, Petroff. The Bulgars go further yet. Serbian children born since the Bulgarian occupation have had to be baptized with Bulgar names. The Serbian priests have been removed (many of them massacred with unspeakable brutality) and the whole Serbian Church has been placed under an interdict. Bulgar priests celebrate Bulgar services in the churches and refuse to baptize the Serbian babies with Serbian names.

Since even these methods have failed to Bulgarize the Serbs, the Bulgars have invented a yet more drastic procedure. They are forcing the people in Serbia to sign documents, printed in Bulgarian, demanding "to be united forever with Bulgaria, their motherland, and to be delivered by her from Serbian tyranny"! This in lands passionately and indisputably Serb from the earliest days of Balkan history! A recent despatch from the official Serbian Press Bureau in Corfu, where the Serbian Government is now established, in reporting this atrocity, says:

Propaganda with such documents would be laughable when one remembers that the Serbian population is in the hands of the Bulgar soldiery and comitadjis, but it is sad when one thinks of the number of victims of these proceedings. Whoever refuses to sign these documents presented by Bulgarian functionaries and soldiers is pitilessly executed. A large number of persons have already been shot in order that Bulgarian newspapers may publish declarations extorted under the menace of death. We cannot quote the whole list of these victims, but we will say that, so far as the priests are concerned seven were executed in Zayetchar and its environs alone. These were Sima Yovanovitch and George Petrovitch of Zayetchar; Vlada Rachitch, of the village of Vragogrntze; Jivone Tassitch, of Kralyevo Selo; George Jivkovitch of Verbitze; the Pope Radissave, of Grlane; and, Strachimir Boulitch.

The mere fact that the Bulgars dare to dream of making the world forget with what enthusiasm these populations have defended their native soil against all aggression, and principally against the Bulgars, and the revolt of these populations against them last spring—a revolt which was stifled in the blood of innumerable victims—proves their complete lack of scruples. The Bulgars are forcing the Serbian population to choose between death and the signature of documents whose odiousness and absurdity they do not see, but which will have to be remembered on the day of settlement.

That is the point. Bulgaria is playing safe. If the Central Powers win the war, she will retain these Serbian lands, and the sooner she kills the sense of Serb nationality in them the easier her control of them will be. On the other hand, in the now certain event of an Allied victory, Bulgaria's course is equally plain. She will come to the Entente representatives at the Peace Conference, her hands full of such "documents" and "proofs" as those I have described. She will have evidence galore to submit of the purely Bulgar character of these Serbian territories. She will say—and if the war goes on much longer she will say with truth: "The people of the Morava do not even speak Serbian; there is not a Serbian name nor an indication of Serb culture in the land—not a book nor a monument, nor even a name on a street." Of course not, when she has burned the books and wrecked the monuments, suppressed the language and forced the people under pain--of death to change their names. All this would have no possible effect if it were a matter of a country about which the world at large is properly informed, Germany could not come to the Peace Conference, no matter what methods she had employed in Belgium, and try to persuade the delegates that the inhabitants of Belgium were Germans. But the world has always been incredibly ill informed as to conditions in the Balkans. Because, parts of Macedonia are filled with a mixed population which attaches itself with ease to whatever nationality has the greatest influence at the moment, the public, even the educated public, in other countries has been only too ready to assume that such conditions exist all over the Balkans. That is utterly false. In temperament and character, in historical background, above all, the Balkan nations have each the most distinct and unmistakable identity. But unless the public of the Entente countries takes the trouble to keep itself properly informed as to what is going on now in Serbia, it is quite on the cards that in the end a hideous injustice may be done to her. Bulgaria has friends, even in Entente countries, who can see in her only the victim of ancient Turkish cruelties, and shut their eyes to all proofs of her present iniquities. It is perfectly possible that she will be able to bring some influence to bear even at the Peace Table, that will insure her being at least let off lightly, unless public opinion is so well informed that it can refuse to be fooled or to allow its representatives at the Conference to be fooled by Bulgaria's "proofs " and "documents."

Austria, bad as her treatment of Serbia has been and still is, is by no means so dangerous. Quite apart from the probability that she will altogether fall to pieces by the end of the war, she entertains no such hopes of eliminating the Serbian people completely as those which animate Bulgaria. She has too many Serbs and kindred Jugoslavs already under her control to imagine that the race can be wiped out, though she is doing her best. It will be an indelible stain on the honor of all honorable nations if, through indifference or laziness or failure to understand, they allow the faintest injustice to be done to Serbia as a consequence of this present campaign of destruction and lies. Serbia has borne infinitely more than her share of this war, She has endured, with the utmost dignity and reticence, sufferings and losses heavier than any other nation has been called on to face; and, in spite, of all, she has scorned every offer of peace that involved a desertion of her allies. If we exact for her less than the fullest and-most far-reaching reparation for her sacrifices in our common cause, we shall be as deeply disgraced as if we ourselves had made a dishonorable peace with Germany.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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