The south Slavs lived in four different states – the Hapsburg Empire, Serbia, Montenegro and Bulgaria – under eight different systems of government. Their impassioned nationalism imposed a dreadful blood forfeit: about 16 per cent of the entire population, almost two million men, women and children, perished violently in the six years of struggle that preceded Armistice Day 1918. Serbia fought two Balkan wars, in 1912 and 1913, to increase its size and power by seizing loose fragments of the Ottoman Empire. In 1912 the Russian foreign minister declared that a Serb–Bulgarian triumph over the Turks would be the worst outcome of the First Balkan War, because it would empower the local states to turn their aggressive instincts from Islamism, against Germanism: ‘In this event one … must prepare for a great and decisive general European war.’ Yet the Serbs and Bulgarians indeed triumphed in that conflict; a subsequent Serb–Romanian victory in the Second Balkan War – a squabble over the spoils of the First – made matters worse. Serbia doubled its territory by incorporating Macedonia and Kosovo. Serbians burst with pride, ambition and over-confidence. Wars seemed to work well for them.
In June 1914 the Russian minister in Belgrade, the dedicated pan-Slavist Nikolai Hartwig, was believed actively to desire an armed clash between Serbia and Austria, though St Petersburg almost certainly did not. The Russian ambassador in Constantinople complained that Hartwig, a former newspaper columnist, ‘shows the activity of an irresponsible journalist’. Serbia was a young country wrested from the Ottoman Empire only in 1878, which now clung to the south-eastern frontier of the Hapsburg Empire like some malevolent growth. Western statesmen regarded the place with impatience and suspicion. Its self-assertiveness, its popular catchphrase ‘Where a Serb dwells, there is Serbia,’ estabilised the Balkans. Europe’s chancelleries were irritated by its ‘little Serbia’, proud-victim culture. Serbs treated their own minority subjects, especially Muslims, with conspicuous and often murderous brutality. Every continental power recognised that the Serbs could achieve their ambition to enfold in their own polity two million brethren still under Hapsburg rule only at the cost of bringing down Franz Joseph’s empire.
Just four and a half million Serbs occupied 87,300 square kilometres of rich rural regions and barren mountains, a smaller country than Romania or Greece. Four-fifths of them lived off the land, and the country retained an exotic oriental legacy from its long subjection to the Ottomans. Such industries as it had were agriculturally based – flour and sawmills, sugar refineries, tobacco. ‘Within little more than two days’ rail from [London],’ wrote an enthusiastic pre-war British traveller, ‘there lies an undeveloped country of extraordinary fertility and potential wealth, possessing a history more wonderful than any fairy tale, and a race of heroes and patriots who may one day set Europe by the ears … I know no country which can offer so general an impression of beauty, so decided an aroma of the Middle Ages. The whole atmosphere is that of a thrilling romance. Conversation is larded with accounts of hairbreadth ’scapes and deeds of chivalry … Every stranger is welcome, and an Englishman more than any.’
Others saw Serbia in much less roseate hues: the country exemplified the Balkan tradition of domestic violence, regime change by murder. On the night of 11 June 1903, a group of young Serb officers fell upon the tyrannical King Alexander and his hated Queen Draga by candlelight in the private apartments of their palace: the bodies were later found in the garden, riddled with bullets and mutilated. Among the assassins was Dragutin Dimitrijević, who became the ‘Apis’ of the Sarajevo conspiracy: he was wounded in a clash with the royal guards, which earned him the status of a national hero. When King Peter returned from a long exile in Switzerland to take the throne of a notional constitutional monarchy, Serbia continued to seethe with factionalism. Peter had two sons: the elder, Djordje, educated in Russia, was a violent playboy who was forced to relinquish his claim to the throne after a 1908 scandal in which he kicked his butler to death. His brother Alexander, who became the royal heir, was suspected of attempting to poison Djordje. The Serb royal family provided no template for peaceful co-existence, and the army wielded as much power as that of a modern African statelet.
29 October 2013
South Slavic Nationalism before 1914
From Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastings (Knopf, 2013), Kindle Loc. 838-871: