The Balkans Join Up
by STOYAN CHRISTOWE
ALL Balkan liberation movements are continuations, and enlargements, of pre-invasion resistances against domestic dictatorships. The peoples of the Balkans were deprived of their liberties and sovereignties by their own governments before they were invaded. With few exceptions the leaders of the resistances against the occupationists were in jail, in banishment, or in exile before the countries were occupied. They were put there by home governments which afterward either opened the doors wide to the Axis armies or fled to London and Cairo to set up shop as governments-in-exile.
For us Americans, victory lies in the overpowering of the enemy. That done, we have something solid to go back to. For the Balkan peoples there is no such going back. If they go back to what they had before the occupation, they will have fought the war in vain. They must go to roots and sources of democracy, to political rights and liberties they never had, or had lost before the occupation. For this reason, victory for them has a deeper and wider meaning than it has for us.
In countries such as Greece, sovereignty must be restored to the people, regardless of whether they eventually choose to retain the monarchy or go back to a republican form of government. The Greeks are a homogeneous people, except for a limited Slav minority in Macedonia and some Albanian nationals in Epirus. They all speak the same tongue, belong to the same Church, and are bound, as nations should be, by a common heritage, common traditions, common culture and history.
In Greece the cleavages are largely political and economic. In Yugoslavia, in addition to these, there are divisions on the basis of nationalities. For Yugoslavia, unlike the other Balkan countries, has not been a nation, but a state on a co-national basis, with none of the three component nations (Serbs, Croats, Slovenes) constituting a majority of the population of 16 million, and all three combined accounting for but two thirds of the total. The rest, or nearly 6 million, have been non-Slav minorities, chief among them being the Hungarians, Austrians, and Albanians — roughly half a million each — and the Turks and Rumanians — a quarter million each.
If in Greece the paramount issue is that of republicanism versus royalism, in Yugoslavia the question of the monarchy is subordinated to broader issues that aim at the radical reconstruction of the state on a federative basis. Of all the legislative acts passed by the Yugoslav Anti-Fascist Assembly for National Liberation, the most momentous is that providing for a federal Yugoslavia. The Anti-Fascist Assembly is the temporary Parliament of Marshal Tito’s united government, and was recognized as such by the Big Three at Yalta, with the recommendation that it “should be extended to include members of the last Yugoslav Parliament who have not compromised themselves by collaboration with the enemy.” This has already been done. The Big Three likewise recognized the legality of legislative acts passed by the Anti-Fascist Assembly, subject to ratification by a Constituent Assembly when hostilities should cease.
Acceptance of all this by Great Britain was no doubt a broad concession to the Russians, under whose guidance and tutelage the South Slavs are now giving reality to their dreams of union. Being related by blood and other bonds to the Russians, it is more natural for the South Slavs to fall under Russian influence than under that of any other great power. And it will serve their own interest and the interests of world peace better to compose their conflicts and find a common path — albeit under Russian influence — than to be free of outside guidance but squabble among themselves, and so be the prey of influences from many quarters.
The Anti-Fascist Assembly took its decision for a federal Yugoslavia at its second session on November 29, 1943, at Jajce in the Bosnian mountains. The decision embodies the right of national self-determination, including the right of secession and unification. This means that a group of people like the Bosnians and Herzegovinians can detach themselves from the Serb and Croat nations and merge with another in the federation if they so choose, or establish themselves as a separate unit of it. On the strength of this new plan, Yugoslavia is to be a federation of six autonomous nations instead of, as heretofore, a single state composed of three non-autonomous nations.
Now who are the Yugoslavs, or South Slavs, who would form this union of six nations — or, with the expected entry of Bulgaria, of seven nations?
ROUGHLY there are some 18 million South Slavs, divided into four distinct nations, as follows: Bulgarians, 7 million; Serbs, 5 million; Croats, 3.5 million; Slovenes, 1.5 million. The last three constituted the original Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes known as Yugoslavia at the time of its dismemberment by the Axis and for some ten years prior to that.
The three new national units are the Macedonians, the Montenegrins, and the Bosnians and Herzegovinians. The Macedonians have long and violently struggled for national recognition, and this is the first time they have been officially recognized as a separate nation. The Montenegrins have previously existed as an independent nation, but are pure Serbs in language, culture, and tradition. Some of the foremost Serb patriots have been Montenegrins. The Bosnians and Herzegovinians have never been a nation. The Roman Catholics among them are Croats; the Greek Orthodox, Serbs; the Mohammedans — and these are in the majority — are mixed, Serbs and Croats. Since it is impossible to draw a line and put the Serbs within Serbia and the Croats within Croatia, the simplest solution seemed to be the creation of a new unit, on the strength of “the right of secession and unification.”
The idea of uniting the South Slavs into a federation is not new. It has been a dream among them for generations. It was, in fact, in line with these aspirations that the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes was founded in 1919, when for the first time in history three of the four South Slavic nations united into a single state.
These three kindred peoples, embarking upon a common destiny, made a sorry spectacle of their venture. They behaved like the eagle, the crawfish, and the pike in the fable. Instead of all pulling together, one pulled up, another down, and the third horizontally, with the ship of state getting nowhere. Yugoslav history from the founding of the state at the end of the First World War to its collapse at the beginning of the Second World War was an uninterrupted series of quarrels that ended in disaster.
The Serbs thought they were the eagle. They were the only ones to exist as an independent nation prior to the establishment of the triune state, and their motto had been “Unity or Death.” Their aim was the liberation by Serbia of all Serbs outside its boundaries, and their inclusion in a Greater Serbia. Since Serbs were scattered all the way from Salonika to the Austrian border, this scheme meant a Serbia encompassing the larger part of the Balkan Peninsula.
It was in pursuance of this national aspiration that the Serbs had become the immediate cause of the First World War. Gavrilo Princip, in assassinating the Archduke Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo, had acted under orders of the “Unity or Death” society. In the war that followed, the Serbs fought bravely against the Central Powers; and when overcome, the Serbian Army escaped annihilation by an epic retreat across the snow of the Montenegrin mountains and then across the Adriatic, later to re-form and become the spearhead of the Allied offensive on the Salonika front, which was the beginning of the end of World War I.
It was not in the nature of Serb psychology to regard the new state as a joint enterprise by three kindred peoples, but rather as a well-deserved and justifiable enlargement of Serbia itself—the realization of the Greater Serbia dream beyond its own daring. The Serbs extended their own state machinery — the Army, the gendarmerie, the civil administration, and all other state apparatus — over the entire territory. Belgrade became a sort of Rome, whence all authority issued and for whose benefit all the provinces — Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Macedonia, BosniaHerzegovinia, Dalmatia — were ruled by their Serbian military governors. As an example of Serb hegemony and Serb pre-emption of all state offices, a situation in the Army may be pointed out. The Croats are not so noted for their military prowess as are the Serbs; yet many of them had risen to high rank in the AustroHungarian Army. None, however, with a rank higher than lieutenant colonel was taken into the new Yugoslav Army. And of those of lower rank who were taken in, only one, in twenty years, attained to the rank of general.
Half of the state’s budget went for the maintenance of a large army and gendarmerie to keep in subjection a disaffected population. Everything was done to exploit this population, nothing to improve its condition. In a land rich in natural resources, poverty became universal among the peasantry, which made up 80 per cent of the population but received less than half of the total income. Import duties and internal taxes were such that farm machinery in Yugoslavia cost three times what it did in other European countries. Sowing and harvesting were done by hand, threshing by horses and flails. To pay the postage of an ordinary letter to a relative in America, a Yugoslav peasant had to sell a hen; to buy a radio he had to sell a carload of wheat.
The average annual per capita income of a Yugoslav peasant household was twenty dollars. And the reason for this poverty was not the unproductivity of the land, but the state’s complete neglect of the peasant and its exploitation of him to the utmost. King Alexander’s salary was one million dollars a year.
The Serbs met with bitter opposition from all quarters. The most violent were the Macedonians, three quarters of a million. They were not a member nation and, being Slavs, were not even accorded the status of a minority, but were classed as Serbs, and Serbism was rammed down their throats. Having no representation in Parliament and therefore no legal means of resisting Belgrade’s chauvinism, they claimed that terror was their only weapon. And they used terror, a department of political argument in which they are precocious. They killed Serb governors and generals; they killed King Alexander himself. The Serbs countered with greater terror, killing a hundred Macedonians for every Serb the Macedonians killed.
To understand the attitude of the Serbs toward the Macedonians it is necessary to go briefly into this most complex of all Balkan dilemmas. For Macedonia is the crux and source of all troubles among Greece, Bulgaria, and Serbia. At one time or another every one of these countries held sway over Macedonia. As these countries, one by one, won their independence from the Turks, each looked upon Macedonia, still under Turkey, as an unredeemed part of itself, yet to be freed and united with itself. They made of Macedonia a bloody arena for their own expansionist designs. Schools, churches, newspapers, and other cultural institutions were not in the hands of Macedonians, but in those of propaganda organizations from Belgrade, Sofia, and Athens. In a single village, where everybody spoke the same language, there would be a Greek, a Bulgarian, and a Serbian school, and a child might attend the first grade in the Greek school and the second in the Serbian, and finish his elementary education in the Bulgarian.
All three nations fought for Macedonian children as if they were potential Dalai Lamas. If the parents could not be won over by bribes, terror was used, for all three countries maintained revolutionary armed bands in Macedonia, ostensibly to liberate it from the Turks. For higher education the Macedonians, enticed by stipends and other favors, went to the capitals of these three countries, later to become champions of the national aspirations, with respect to Macedonia, of the country that gave them their education. For example, a dozen years ago nine of the eleven Bulgarian ministers plenipotentiary to foreign capitals were Macedonians, as was the prime minister himself. One can readily imagine what a powerful argument that gave Bulgaria for her claims over Macedonia.
To save themselves from their would-be “liberators,” the Macedonians founded their own revolutionary organization, the well-known and indefatigable IMRO, which raised the banner of Macedonian independence and fought the Turks, the Bulgarians, the Greeks, the Serbs, and finally itself, because there were people who joined it for the sole purpose of capturing it from within for one or another of these countries, or for the Third International. After a stormy and bloody history, outside powers succeeded in splitting IMRO into three factions, one of which was captured by Bulgaria (eventually also by Mussolini and Hitler), another by Yugoslavia, and the third by the Third International.
For the record, however, it should be pointed out that in 1913, when the Turks were finally driven out, Macedonia was divided unequally among Serbia, Greece, and Bulgaria, which got the smallest part. And that neither ended nor solved the Macedonian difficulty. The most sanguinary episodes were yet to come, and the idea of a separate and independent Macedonia never died.
At long last such a state has come into being. On August 2, 1944, 125 delegates from all parts of Macedonia assembled in a monastery near Bitolia and, in the presence of the Allied Military Mission to Yugoslavia, proclaimed, in accordance with the principle of national self-determination adopted by the AntiFascist Assembly, an autonomous Macedonia as a unit in federal Yugoslavia. This of course applies only to Yugoslav Macedonia. There are still the territories under Greece and Bulgaria. But a beginning has been made toward the solution of a problem which has been the source of perpetual trouble and terror for half a century. A Macedonian government is now functioning in Skoplje, capital of Yugoslav Macedonia.
The most formidable opposition to ultra-Serbism, largely legal-political, came from Croatia. Next to the Serbs, the Croats were the most numerous in the state. If less military and less nationalistic, they are far superior to the Serbs in every way that makes for civilized living and civilized government. The bestorganized group in the state politically, 80 per cent of the Croats were banded into the Croatian Peasant Party, founded in 1904 by Stephan Radich and led by him for twenty-four years. This was more than a political party in the traditional sense; it was a social institution, with its activities and interests extending into every phase of Croat life. It taught the peasants how to get the most out of their land with the means at their disposal, organized village coöperatives, published books, newspapers, and magazines, promoted literature, painting, drama, and generally tried to do for the Croats, while Belgrade ruled them, what any enlightened government should do for its people.
Unlike the Macedonians, the Croats were a member nation, and even if they had no control of their own administration, next to the Serbs they had the largest delegation in Parliament. For there was a parliament. The protracted, bitter parliamentary debates, marked by incriminations and recriminations between Serbs and Croats, lasted for ten years and were finally ended by a Serb deputy who drew his pistol and fired into the Croat delegation, killing two deputies on the spot and wounding two others, including the chief, Radich, who later died of the wounds. Then the Croat representatives stalked out of Parliament in a body and stayed away from Belgrade for ten years. But Belgrade did not stay away from Croatia. It governed Croatia like a colony, without Croat participation in Parliament or in the government.
Still loyal to the crown, and still keeping faith in the future of Yugoslavia, the Croats now demanded, as a condition of their return to Belgrade, a form of autonomy, with local self-government and control over their finances. Led by Machek, who took the place of the murdered Radich, they still hoped to bring the Serbs to terms through political pressure and pacific means. But a group of extremists, headed by another deputy, Ante Pavelich, argued that terrorism was the only way to deal with the Serbs. It was they who founded USTASHA, the Croat revolutionary society fathered by Mussolini and later blessed by Hitler. They patterned their organization after IMRO, with which they signed a pact for joint terror on Belgrade and for the dissolution of Yugoslavia, which, with the help of Hitler and Mussolini, they finally achieved.
Hitler and Mussolini, and small have-not nations such as Hungary and Bulgaria, gave backing to the Croats and Macedonians, while the Serbs had the support of France and England and of smaller countries like Poland, Rumania, and Czechoslovakia, which were well content with the status quo. It was in France, not in Yugoslavia, that the IMRO-USTASHA terrorist assassinated King Alexander and the French foreign minister, Louis Barthou.
Five years before his assassination Alexander had taken a bold and radical step. He had suspended the state’s constitution, abolished Parliament, and through a series of royal decrees had proceeded to change the structure of the state and to destroy the identities of the peoples which composed it. It was then he changed the state’s original name (Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes) to Yugoslavia and, as a further move toward centralization and obliteration of national concepts, divided the entire territory into nine banovinas, naming each after the principal river running through it. Thus the old and honored names — Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia — disappeared from the map of Yugoslavia. There were to be no other peoples, only Yugoslavs. Yugoslavia was to be a state and a nation, one and the same.
However statesmanlike, this bold attempt at dissolving the conflicts through amalgamation of the nations and the creation of an integral Yugoslavia was doomed to failure. The Croats and the Slovenes, who at least so far had national recognition even if they had no equal share in the affairs of state, found themselves in the same boat with the Macedonians, whose only comfort now was that, instead of Serbs, they could call themselves Yugoslavs. Otherwise their situation was exactly as before. The dynasty being Serb and the symbol of Serbism, they all saw in this move only a subterfuge of the Serb hegemonists, a mask concealing a sinister design to dominate the state under the guise of Yugoslavs.
After Alexander paid for his policy with his life, the Regency continued unification by force for another five years, until August, 1939. Then, faced with threats from the Axis and reading a lesson in what had just happened to Czechoslovakia, the Serbs reached an accord with the Croats by granting them a form of autonomy and a separate budget. Machek became Vice Premier in a new government, and Ivan Subasich, a prominent member of the Croatian Peasant Party, became Viceroy of autonomous Croatia.
Mr. Subasich, a wealthy landowner, had been a close friend of King Alexander and was entirely loyal to the Crown. Later, after the country was invaded, he fled with the government and lived for two years in the United States. When events finally forced King Peter to abandon Mihailovich and to recognize Tito, King Peter chose Subasich as the man best able to work with Tito and at the same time to safeguard the Crown’s interest. In the new United Government, Tito is the Prime Minister, Subasich the Minister of Foreign Affairs and, as such, chief of the Yugoslav delegation to the San Francisco Conference.
BUT we are ahead of our story. By 1939 the cleavage cut too deep. The intransigent USTASHI had no part in the accord, and clamored for complete independence. Their leader, Ante Pavelich, was on the border, ready to march in with the Axis armies and take over the “independent” Croatia which had been promised him. The Axis kept its promise.
Alexander’s integral Yugoslavia collapsed. The Army, esteemed one of the best smaller armies in Europe, was not animated by loyalty to the state, and lacked cohesive force. The Croats in the north not only did not fight, but actually facilitated the invasion. In the south the Macedonians did effective work behind the lines. Fraternal Bulgaria, its eyes on Macedonia, did its own share by giving the Germans bases so that they could strike simultaneously from the east and the south. They were able to take Skoplje, the Macedonian capital, two days before they entered Belgrade from the north.
It must be remembered that, at that time, the Germans had not yet invaded Russia. Even so, Moscow was angered by this treacherous act on the part of the Bulgarian government and issued a dire warning to Sofia. That warning has been followed up by positive action. Hundreds of Bulgarians who then and subsequently led the nation away from the path of Slav brotherhood have been executed.
The Serbs found themselves “betrayed” on all sides, and learned a belated but thorough lesson in statecraft. A proud, brave people, had they been by themselves, relying on their native courage and solidarity, they could at least have saved the national honor by putting up a heroic fight, like the Greeks, even if they could not have saved their country from eventual occupation. But however united they were among themselves, they were but 5 million among 16 million.
It is from among Serb groups that opposition comes to Marshal Tito’s federal Yugoslavia, which is a threat to the dynasty, and of course to any designs for Serb hegemony still cherished by some die-hards. Fiercely attached to their royal house, these groups fear that the combined votes of Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians, and others who are not sentimental about the Karageorgevich dynasty may thwart their desire to have their king back. And they look with forebodings upon a federation, preferring instead a separate, pure, and indigenous Serb state. Fortunately they are in the minority: former cabinet ministers, diplomats, and high army officers, mostly in exile. Their representative at home is General Draja Mihailovich, who, as this is being written, is still hiding in the Bosnian mountains.
This then is the cause for the strife between Mihailovich and Marshal Tito: The Yugoslav Army of National Liberation and Partisan Detachments fought as separate national units under their own national commanders with Marshal Tito as supreme (or federal) commander, precisely as the armies of the various Allied Nations fought in Europe under the supreme command of General Eisenhower. General Mihailovich and his Chetniks fought the Italians and the Germans, refrained from fighting them, collaborated with them, fought against Tito, and did whatever else they did, or did not do, solely in the interest of Serbia and the Crown, and against a federal Yugoslavia. Theirs has been a conflict between ultra-Serbism and genuine Yugoslavism.
The attitude of the majority of Serbs at home is attested by the fact that between 40 and 50 per cent of Tito’s forces are Serbs, which is in excess of the percentage of Serbs in the total population of Yugoslavia. Next to Tito, who is a Croat, the foremost leaders in the Anti-Fascist Assembly and in the Committee of National Liberation are Serbs.
THE South Slavs are at a turning point in their history. They took their decision for federation while they were hard pressed on all sides by the enemy, — engaging as they did, at various times, twenty Italian and fourteen German divisions, — and while they were fighting for survival through six successive, concentrated campaigns aimed at their annihilation. They have earned the right to determine the structure of their future state.
The recommendation by the Big Three at Yalta to combine Subasich’s government-in-exile with Tito’s provisional home government, as well as the recognition of the Anti-Fascist Assembly as the temporary Parliament, was sound statesmanship and a most realistic approach to the Yugoslav situation. They have given the South Slavs the green light to go ahead with their plans of union. It is up to them now to overcome existing difficulties and to work out their common destiny.
But age-old animosities cannot be wiped out with a single stroke. Some of the Serbs will not so easily give up their dream of supremacy. And many intransigent Croats will have to swallow a bitter pill. The important thing is that the plan for federation is the best yet devised for the well-being of the Balkan Slavs and for the future peace of the whole peninsula. It opens the door for the entrance of Bulgaria, the largest of the family of South Slavic nations, into the federation. And this is more than a mere likelihood, for the people who now head the Bulgarian government have been the champions of Yugoslav fraternity for a generation. At a time when there was bitter enmity between Serbs and Bulgars, these people set afoot a movement in Bulgaria for close collaboration with Yugoslavia and for the eventual linking of Bulgaria with it.
The movement being then unpopular, the protagonists of it formed not a political party but a political club, which they called Zveno, or “link ” The leaders were two retired army colonels, Kimon Gheorghiev, now Prime Minister of Bulgaria, and Damian Velchev, now War Minister. They knew well enough that, not being a political party, they could not achieve their program through the ballot box, and that their only hope of seizing power and implementmg their program was through the fine technique of revolution. Their chance came in the spring of 1934 when by a brilliant and bloodless stroke (which I myself witnessed) they seized the reins of government.
The power of Zveno was brief. It lasted from May to November. The government which displaced it put the leaders in jail and sentenced some of them to death. Throughout the period of Axis domination they remained in jail, in concentration camps, or under house arrest. It is remarkable that the two leaders, Gheorghiev and Velchev, survived. Again in power, they have now taken down the barbed wire that literally fenced the 300-mile boundary line between Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. The road is wide open for ulgaria s entry into the federation, though signs are already appearing that the British, having made large concessions to the Russians with respect to federating the peoples of Yugoslavia proper, are reluctant to permit the inclusion of the Bulgarians in the new Slav state, because Bulgaria was an enemy nation and its inclusion in Yugoslavia would spare it from receiving its due penalty.
There is no better setup among any other group of nations for a fraternal union. Geographical, political, and economic factors favor such a union. Ethnically the peoples are a kindred mass. There are, of course, differences among them —of background, culture, religon’ even of alphabets. But it is precisely these differences and the highly developed group-consciousness among them that find recognition in the principle of self-determination. The Serbs, Bulgars, and Macedonians, being Greek Orthodox, use the Cyrillic alphabet; the Croats and Slovenes, as Roman Catholics, use the Latin characters. Yet they all read and write and speak languages that are very much alike.
In time these peoples may coalesce into a single nation, for they are as much alike as they are different, but for the time being their immediate objective is a federation of nations. They have made Woodrow Wilson’s principle of national self-determination the cornerstone of their plan. That is the core and central meaning of their plan — the recognition of nationality and the creation of a common state of free and equal national units.
The plan strikes boldly at the very heart of the Macedonian problem, which has been the cause of two Balkan wars, of several revolutions, of countless murders and other terroristic acts. It strives to neutralize the age-old rivalry between Serb and Bulgar, and to dissolve the recent contentions between Serb and Croat. By bringing all the Yugoslav peoples together within the framework of a common state, without destroying their national identities or depriving them of local self-government, it promises to remove them from the arena of international intrigue, which in the past has played one brother nation against the other.