Across the Warring Balkans: From Zurich to Zagreb

An account of a journey from Croatia to Kosovo, by way of Bosnia-Hercegovina and Serbia, and with a detour into Montenegro. This is part I of a series.

On the night train from Zurich to Zagreb.

During a fit of madness last winter—while sitting beside the fireplace and wandering through my atlases—I came up with the idea of traveling down the spine of the Balkans from Zagreb to Pristina, to see what has become of former Yugoslavia in the twenty years since the wars ended and the Titoist empire was dissolved.

With the help of some railway and bus schedules, I decided that along the way I could stop in the Republika Srpska (still something of an outlaw state on European soil), Sarajevo (of siege fame), Srebrenica (location of the massacre in eastern Bosnia), Novi Pazar (more than Sarajevo and the shooting of the archduke at the root cause of World War I), North Mitrovica (the flashpoint of any future wars in Europe), and, finally, end up in Pristina, the capital city of Kosovo.

In high summer, such a journey—perhaps in a rental car or camper van—would be a delight. But I was proposing to travel on this line in February: hence the madness.

For a while I even contemplated taking along my folding bicycle, although the weather forecasts of snow and ice for Sarajevo persuaded me to leave it behind. Instead I filled a small backpack with long underwear and thermal socks, and set off on the overnight train that connects Zurich and Zagreb by way of Austria and Slovenia.

Several weeks later I was back home, pleased to have navigated the spine of the Balkans without any mishaps (the icy cobblestones in Sarajevo would have done in my bike), but discouraged at the prospects for peace in the region.

Despite the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement that ended the wars in Bosnia, and the Kumanovo Treaty that brokered an uneasy truce in Kosovo between Serbs and Albanians, the bloodlands between what were once the Austrian and Turkish empires remain as fractured as they were in 1878, 1914, 1941, and 1992—earlier moments when the Balkans came apart along their ethnic, religious, or national seams.

On the surface, parts of the Balkans (notably Zagreb and Pristina) have shiny new buildings and cars, and I am sure many casual visitors to Croatia come away thinking that Europe has healed the divisions that separated, notably, Serbs and Croats in former Yugoslavia.

I might have thought so as well, had I stuck to beaten paths between Marriott and Intercontinental enclaves. Instead, without my bicycle, I rode buses and meandering trains on my way south to Kosovo and came to the sad conclusion that Southeast Europe is as ripe for conflict as it was just before the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 (which featured Greece, Serbia, Montenegro, and Bulgaria against the Ottomans).

Various internal and external wars between 1992 and 1999 dissolved Yugoslavia, and in its place the NATO Powers littered the Balkan landscape with six new countries (Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Hercegovina, Montenegro, and North Macedonia) and a number of simmering ethnic hot spots (including Vojvodina, Kosovo, Republika Srpska, and various other territories and enclaves in Bosnia and Macedonia).

Not even President Woodrow Wilson’s 1919 Peace of Paris (which included the Treaty of Versailles) left Europe with so many disputed borders and national tensions, and of the contradictions in that earlier brokered settlement, the American ambassador William C. Bullitt said: “This isn’t a treaty of peace… I can see at least eleven wars in it.”

The Overnight Train to Zagreb

The night train for Zagreb departed from a remote platform in the main Zurich station. On the website of something called OBB Nightjet (an Austrian-owned company that is trying to save sleeper trains across central Europe), I had booked a bed in a compartment for three, with the vain hope that my roommates might not be traveling that day on the overnight express to the Balkans.

The carriage porter showed me to my bed and after consulting his manifest said that one other passenger was to due to board this compartment in Sargans (in Switzerland near the Austrian border).

When I made some noises about how nice it is to have a single compartment and passed along what in the movie Caddyshack is called “a little something for the effort,” the porter said he would put the Sargans passenger elsewhere and that I could sleep peacefully for the night.

One of the reasons I opted to take the train to Zagreb, as opposed to flying, is that I had just finished reading Andrew Martin’s elegy, Night Trains: The Rise and Fall of the Sleeper.

The book recounts Martin’s journeys on a series of the night trains that remain in Europe (the big ones, such as London to Rome, are gone), and he ends his account by writing: “This book has been written as a lament. But if it turns out that my tone is misconceived, and the European night trains will not disappear into a permanent darkness, I will be only too glad.”

In the book I followed Martin to familiar stations in London, Paris, Berlin, and Istanbul, and his accounts, in particular, reminded me of earlier night trains I had taken to the Balkans.

My first trip to Yugoslavia was in winter-spring 1970, when my parents decided to take their three children on a grand European tour. Remote as it seems today in the era of jet-set weekends to London and Paris, few American families then made European excursions, and in this case the obscurity of our itinerary garnered us an extra week of school vacation.

It was something of a grand tour, although instead of stops in London, Paris, and Berlin, we flew an Icelandic propeller plane to Luxembourg and rode a series of trains from Basel and Innsbruck to Belgrade, then the capital of Yugoslavia.

On the last leg of the journey, a night train from Trieste to Belgrade, Yugoslav railways failed to attach a sleeper to the express train and consigned our family to a second-class carriage in which the heating failed.

As the night wore on, my parents sipped wine from what was probably a paper bag, and the children kept adding layers of clothing as we watched the train window turn into something from a crystal palace. Come morning, we were creeping across Slavonia (west of Belgrade), where the trees in a broad valley of the Danube were outlined (as we were) in frost.

I arrived in Belgrade with a raging sore throat and took to my hotel bed with aspirin and Coca-Cola, but somewhere in my high-school brain I was pleased that we had covered a section of track used on the Orient Express, although something told me that passengers on that train probably didn’t arrive in Belgrade looking like the Michelin tire man.

The Slovenian Secession

Forty-nine years later, alone in my compartment for three, I slept until first light, which appeared in the mountains of Slovenia, close to Lake Bled.

Soaring alps were encased in rain and fog. In the station for Lesce-Bled, I peered out the window, hoping I might discover why the resort garnered so many celebrity guests in the 1960s (at least those who wanted to sport some East European socialist street cred).

I thought of the likes of Sophia Loren or Roger Moore wearing sunglasses while dining on a lakeside terrace, but from the station platform all I could see, in the mist, was the workers’ paradise of high-rise apartment blocs, those which Tito’s management circles helped to build. I thought I was stopped in Gstaad; instead it looked like an urban renewal project outside Denver.

Of all the secessions from Yugoslavia, Slovenia’s (in 1992) was the least painful, in that there was little shooting or violence and few in either Zagreb or Belgrade minded when the Slovenes headed for the doors.

Culturally, within Yugoslavia, Slovenia had always felt more like an extension of Austria stapled onto a Balkan federation, and ethically Slovenia had few Serbs or Croats (and almost no Muslims) living within its borders.

In Brian Hall’s Impossible Country: Journey Through the Last Days of Yugoslavia, which I was reading in my berth, he describes his travels around the country during the winter and summer of its discontent and eventual breakup. I had owned the book for a number of years, but never read it, as I bought my copy long after Yugoslavia was in the dustbin of history.

Scouring my shelves before leaving for Zurich, I spotted Hall’s account and in flipping through some of the pages found myself attracted to his writing, which is an elegant blend of travel and history. It was also familiar to me, as I too had traveled to Yugoslavia on the eve of its destruction in 1990, and Hall’s book brought back my own memories of places such as Belgrade and Mostar, then outposts of the brave old world.

Hall makes the point that Slovenia had one advantage over the other unhappy republics in the federation, which was the backing of Germany and Austria in its desire for independence.

To many Serbs, such power politics were nothing more than Austro-Hungarian or Bismarckian revanchism—to pay back the Serbs for their fighting against Germany in 1914-1918 or the partisan operations during World War II against Nazi forces.

Absent a functioning Yugoslavia, Slovenia saw its future closer to Europe and the coming union, more than it did affiliated with the likes of Bosnia and Macedonia.

Hall writes that the Slovenes could trade on inside information when Yugoslavia sent its tanks (but not infantry) to the Slovenian border in 1992, hoping that saber-rattling alone might keep the federation together. He writes:

The Slovene representative in the Federal Presidency was present when this decision was made, and he returned to Slovenia and told the Slovenian territorial defence commander that it would only be tanks, and the boys in the tanks had orders not to shoot. At that point, the Slovenes knew they could not lose. Tanks without back-up are sitting ducks! So they attacked the tanks. Easy! You fire a grenade, the tank blows up, the soldiers inside burn alive. It was in the Slovenes’ interest to make the incident as violent as possible, because no matter what the death toll on either side might be, the world was bound to see it as the big bad army trying to crush brave little Slovenia.’

In response to the rising, Belgrade television broadcast Anschluss footage from the late 1930s, showing Slovenes delirious at the arrival of Hitler’s forces. (Hall writes: “Little children, doll-like in their Slovenian folk costumes, gave adorable Hitler salutes…”) Those images presupposed that the world might remember that Serbia fought and died on the side of the Allies in the world wars, while it was Croatia (and Slovenia) embraced fascism, right down to the establishment of death camps.

In 1992, however, it was Yugoslavia (and its dominant component, Serbia) that was cast in the role of Obermeister, while freedom-loving Slovenia, not to mention German revanchism (shall we say Lebensraum?), was absolved of responsibility for the breakup of the federation. Hall concludes:

Mirjana [his friend, with whom he is watching television about Slovenia’s secession] lamented the Slovenes’ PR skills. Their military leaders charmed the foreign press by speaking in English and French, while the Yugoslav Army generals sequestered themselves. The stupid Serbs were once again losing the propaganda war. They had this naïve belief that simply because their cause was just the world would understand. But meanwhile the Slovenes and Croats were hiring public relations firms and lobbying . . .

Now Slovenia might well be a suburb of Graz.

Historical Revisionism in Zagreb

I wasn’t sure how long I would stay in Zagreb. What interested me most on this trip was Sarajevo, where I had not been since the war there began in 1992. But I had been more recently in Zagreb, which I knew to be a city of Austro-Hungarian design and elegance.

At the main train station, I checked my rucksack in a locker, drank coffee from a concession, and set about figuring how I might get to Banja Luka, across the border in Republika Srpska, which is itself a constituent part of Bosnia and Hercegovina, although in many respects it operates as an independent country.

Until a few years ago there was a train from Zagreb to Sarajevo that stopped in Banja Luka. Often, in my travel dreams, I had tracked its progress across the frontier into Bosnia and south to the main station in Sarajevo. I knew it was an all-day journey, and that the train lacked a dining car (so bring food and drinks).

When I was ready to make the crossing, the through train to Sarajevo was no longer running—a victim of some dispute between the railway companies in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina. (Later I was told the Bosnians owed money to Croatia that they weren’t paying, and in turn the Croatians had threatened to impound Bosnian rolling stock. But it was hearsay.)

My only choice of transport into Bosnia-Hercegovina was a bus, and at a counter in the nearby bus terminal a clerk told me the last connection to Banja Luka departed around 3:00 p.m. Rather than hang around rainy Zagreb for another day, I bought a ticket on the last bus and set off to walk around the old city, which I knew I could see in less than four hours.

Zagreb in February rain wasn’t inspiring. I fortified myself with Viennese coffee and walked across the heart of the old city until I found the Croatian History Museum just off a cobblestoned square. I had decided to do one museum well rather than several poorly, and, besides, as it was a winter Monday, the art museums that had interested me were closed.

The guard on duty outside the museum badgered me about something—the directions to the ticket kiosk were not clearly marked—but inside I was the only visitor. There I learned that instead of general Croatian history, the museum, on this day anyway, was limited to an exhibit about the political events in 1918 and how Croatia agreed to membership in what was first called in 1918 the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, and which later in 1929 became Yugoslavia.

It is now generally believed that Yugoslavia was yet another legacy (like Czechoslovakia) of the 1919 Paris Peace, but the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes was proclaimed in December, 1918, months before Wilson, George Clemenceau, and David Lloyd George could sow salt in Germany’s war wounds and dismember Austro-Hungary.

Since 1918, Croatian history has been one long exercise in revision, to the extent I felt sorry for the directors of this small museum, knowing that in the last hundred years they and their predecessors would have had to change the storyboards about every ten years.

Needless to say, the museum skips over Croatia’s moments as a Hitler vassal state or its time as a Titoist constituent part, and instead dwells on the illegitimate birth of Yugoslavia, to make the point that Croatian independence should have occurred in 1918, not 1992.

One of the plaques in the museum displays a long quotation from Dr. Ante Trumbić, a Croatian and leading Yugoslav politician from the early twentieth century and a witness to what is now considered the stillborn republic. In 1933, in an interview with a British historian, he said:

It was a failed experiment, and it took place because at that time the relevant statesmen did not correctly understand the Croatian question. The Croats themselves were pressed against the wall. The London Treaty [1915, a secret pact between Italy and the Allies that would have partitioned what is now Croatia] threatened the nation’s survival, since there was a danger that it would be torn in three parts: one was to belong to Austria, the second to Italy, and the third to Serbia. To avoid this fragmentation, the Croats united with Serbia under the assumption that they would be equal with the Serbs. In a special agreement, Serbia accepted a solemn obligation to respect the Croatian tradition and individuality. However, this obligation has been systematically violated. Today, the Croats realized that this situation in which they ended after the war was actually far worse than the London Treaty, because putting it to practice would have threatened their national community, but this way their very survival was in danger.

Elsewhere in the cabinets are other expressions of doubt about the presence of Croatia in the new kingdom, or the question whether citizens even had a chance to endorse the decision to join Yugoslavia. And there is this quote from Stjepan Sarkotić, a Croat and Austrian general during the war, who said to the last Austrian emperor, Charles I, on March 6, 1918:

The Serbs and Croats do not belong together, and that is why the Croatian Kingdom would be a counterbalance to the Serbian one. I reject the claim that Croats and Serbs are one and the same people. The Germans and the Hungarians would never allow Yugoslavia, and for Croats it would be equal to annihilation because of the Serbian majority and hegemony….

One came away from the storyboards convinced that evil Serbs, at the end of World War I, had kidnapped a nascent liberal republic, Croatia, and held it hostage in the Yugoslav federation until its 1992 secession.

Yugoslavia’s Fleeting Notions

As a political idea, Yugoslavia dated to the nineteenth century, when all the peoples of the Balkans felt aggrieved living under the dominance of either the Austro-Hungarian or Turkish empires, which were to the north and south of what became the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes.

Serbia was the only country in the region with a modicum of independence, while in the dual monarchy Croatia answered to Hungarian rule and, after 1878, Bosnia-Hercegovina was under Austrian occupation (it was annexed in 1908).

In her excellent history of Yugoslavia’s collapse, Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, Nato, and Western Delusions, historian Diana Johnstone summarizes Croatia’s limited experience with self-government since the 12th century, writing:

The Croatian nationalist movement centered on demanding recognition of the “rights” of the medieval kingdom of Croatia, which in 1102 had ceded its crown to the kingdom of Hungary, in turn absorbed into the Habsburg Empire in 1527.

And she notes that both Slovenia and Croatia had much to gain in siding with the winners, including Serbia, in World War I. She writes:

They avoided the heavy reparations imposed on the losers at Versailles. Moreover, they obtained important territories, notably a large part of the Dalmatian coast, which had been secretly promised to Italy by the British.

Another perceptive observer of Yugoslavia’s rise and fall is an English historian of Yugoslav descent, Professor Stevan K. Pavlowitch, and in his excellent The Improbable Survivor: Yugoslavia and Its Problems 1918 – 1988, he writes:

The conception of Yugoslavia goes back to the 1830s, in the territories of the Habsburg Monarchy where South Slavs—the future Yugoslavs—lived intermingled…. Yugoslavia, however, was neither an extension of the kingdom of Serbia nor a South Slav version of Austria-Hungary…. It marked the triumph of the centralist Serbian experiences over the Austro-Hungarian tradition of constitutional complexity.

Brian Hall writes of the period at the end of the First World War:

When the Serbs of Serbia expelled the Turks and established an independent kingdom, Yugoslavism had a magnet, romantically conceived. Croatia would detach itself from Austria-Hungary and unite with free Serbia. The chaos at the end of World War I brought added impetus. The starving Croat peasantry had started looting the towns and estates, and the only nearby army strong enough to stop them was Serbia’s.

The many reasons that the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes failed during the 1920s was not covered in the Croatian History Museum (at the end all I could find was an exhibit of some paramilitary motorcycles), but Serbian heavy-handedness within the kingdom was a large part of the problem. Hall writes:

To Croats it meant a mutual-defence relationship – a pragmatic impulse. To the Serbs, who considered it only natural that Croats would want to join a people as glorious as themselves, it meant a fraternal relationship, that is, big brother Serbia and little brother Croatia – a sentimental impulse. The Croats demanded a sovereign Croatia within a federal structure. The Serbs rammed through a centralist constitution. The Croats – partners, right? – boycotted the assembly. The Serbs reacted sentimentally, which is to say, harshly. The large-hearted big brother was forced to discipline the ungrateful little one.

After 1929, Yugoslavia was a sometime notion but it says something about historical longevity that it managed to limp into the 1990s.

Next up: The bus to Banja Luka and the heartlands of the Republika Srpska.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.