Across the Balkans: Serbia and Its Discontents

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 VII of a series.

Kadinjača Memorial Complex: Monument in southern Serbia where in 1941 the German army overran a partisan battalion.

Except for the cigarette smoke in my Serbian riverside restaurant—it will do in more Serbs than the Hague—I was happy to linger, as the view from the windows was of snow-covered fields and the rushing current. I had Julian Borger’s book to read and coffee to drink, and after a while Andrej (my driver) rejoined me at the table and we made a plan for the afternoon.

As neither of us was in a big hurry to get to Užice, in southern Serbia where I had booked a hotel that evening, we decided to visit the nearby Rača monastery and then to look at the war memorial for the 1941 battle of Kadinjača. Andrej said both were more or less on our way, and he, too, would enjoy seeing them again.

The drive reminded me of many I made during July 1976, when, before riding the narrow-gauge train to Sarajevo, I lived for several weeks with a family in Nish, a regional Yugoslav city south of Belgrade.

Whenever my hosts had a free afternoon, they would take me driving in the car (a small Yugo) and inevitably we would stop at monasteries and soaring World War II war memorials of Titoist construction.

On this afternoon, as we headed toward Rača, I stared at my road maps and asked questions, and Andrej drove and talked passionately about Serbian history.

He was a forty-year-old man with two children and a cat, and by no means an extreme nationalist, but he felt the pain of his country’s international isolation and those frustrations emerged as we gingerly drove south along the Drina river on snow-covered roads.

Of Yugoslavia’s early days after 1918, Andrej said that in World War I Serbia had saved Croatia from Austrian and German invasions but that its reward, in the subsequent coalition government, was to be stabbed in the back. The same pattern was repeated in World War II, when Croatia threw in its lot with the Nazis and Italian fascists.

According to Andrej, during World War II the British, in particular, betrayed the Serbs by their support of Tito’s partisans who subsequently “brutalized” the population with communist rule.

In the breakup of Yugoslavia, Andrej said, the likes of Bill Clinton, Richard Holbrooke, and Madeleine Albright (there were more on the list) had cast Yugoslavia on the dustbin of history and plotted its demise, without any regard for Serbs who—because of Tito’s internal borders—were assigned to republics outside Serbia. (Large Serbs minorities were scattered around Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, and FYRO Macedonia.)

Andrej saw the conferences at Rambouillet, Dayton, and London as little more than variations on the 1878 Congress of Berlin, in that they partitioned the Balkans to suit the whims of the great powers and their spheres of influence. And he reminded me that NATO had bombed Serbia for 78 days, just as the Nazis had at Easter 1941.

About Kosovo and the prospects there for a settlement, he took issue with the idea that, after the Yugoslav dissolution, Serbs had no rights to the land on which Serbs had been living since medieval times.

Concerning NATO’s control over Kosovo, he challenged me (in a gentle way) to look up the UN charter’s definition of “occupied territory,” and added that now the EU was blackmailing Serbia yet again by insisting that it renounce its claims in Kosovo in order to gain accession to the union.

Anyone who has traveled in Serbia has heard all of these arguments many times, and I myself was familiar with the litany, although I didn’t mind hearing them again as we drove through a quiet corner of the country—just as I didn’t mind listening to Bosnians tell me how most Serbs were war criminals. Maybe I wasn’t a traveler at all, but an itinerant grief counsellor?

* * *

The Rača monastery is a medieval remnant tucked away on a desolate Serbian hillside, and on this day covered with February chill.

Inside, the walls are covered with icons and frescos, and on a plaque near the front door I read that the monks who once lived here played a key role in the development of Serbian literacy.

Turkish forces had routinely burned the monastery, as did the Nazis. Throughout Rača’s turbulent history—it was first built in the 13th century—the monks still managed to preserve many of Serbia’s most important illuminated manuscripts, a few of which were under glass in a building near the church.

The Kadinjača Memorial Complex for the World War II battle was on a hilltop halfway between Rača and Užice, but such was the elevation that the snow around the monuments was several feet deep. (The image of that memorial is that of large fallen tombstones.)

Andrej thought it was important for me to walk to the top, so we trudged through snow drifts up to the vantage point and looked down on the surrounding valleys, where in 1941 the Workers Battalion of partisans held out against the Nazis, in defense of Užice, until it was overrun and annihilated.

Andrej translated the words to the famous poem on the marker, which read:

My Native country, did you know?
There is a whole battalion killed …
Red blood blossomed
through the snow cover, cold and white.
At night snow overblown that also.
However, in the south, the army is going…
it fell fourteenth kilometers
but never will

Užice was the center of an early partisan “republic,” which is why the Nazis fought so hard to capture it, and much of the fighting between the partisans and the Germans took place on the mountainous line that stretches from Užice—in southern Serbia—through Bosnia into Croatia.

One of the best accounts of the fighting is Milovan Djilas’s Wartime, a memoir of his days with Tito. Later, he broke from Tito and Yugoslav communism, one reason the book remains in print.

I read his account in 1998, and I remember thinking at the time that his best writing described, not the battles with the Germans, but, for example, the internal struggles between the Chetniks (royal sympathizers led by Draža Mihailović) and the Partisans.

Of the lands I was seeing in the snow, he writes: “It was in joy and apprehension, with personal doubts and anxieties, that I arrived the next day in Užice—fresh from a people’s uprising which treachery and irreconcilable antagonism had transformed into organized and raging feuds.”

Bosnia wasn’t the first Yugoslav civil war. Nor, sadly, do I think it will be the last.

* * *

I thought there might be more for me to do in Užice than there was. Andrej said to me as we drove into the city, “You know, most of the buildings were done in the brutalist style.” And he reminded me that Tito had put his name on the city—officially until 1992 it had been Titovo Užice—and for that reason architectural change had come slowly.

Užice seems to exist in a Yugoslav time warp, but I liked my small guest house, and the owner pointed me down the hill to a city square where I found a restaurant for dinner.

I didn’t linger over coffee or slivovitz because of the cigarette smoke but after dinner walked in a chilling winter mist to the train station (more brutalism) and looked at the schedule of departing trains.

My choices for the next morning were to go north to Belgrade, south to Bar (in Montenegro, on the Adriatic), or east to Kraljevo, where I could catch another train or a bus to Novi Pazar, in the Sandžak (and continue in the direction of the Novibazar Railway).

I studied the departure board for a while and settled on the 7:40 a.m. local train to Kraljevo, although none of the sales windows were open in the station for me to buy a ticket. Nor was anyone on duty when I returned the next morning at 7:00 a.m.

It seemed strange to me that a station the size of Užice would be empty at seven in the morning, so I poked around the Escher-like staircases until, on a lower level, I found a café that was serving coffee and sweet breakfast rolls.

One of the waiters said the ticket agent was probably out walking his dog, and that before the 7:40 a.m. train left I would be able to buy a ticket, which is, in fact, what happened.

I paid $4 for a seat in second class (it didn’t strike me that the train would be crowded), and a few minutes before departure a brand-new set of rail cars ambled into the station.

These cars were newer than those of the Talgo train in Bosnia, and even in second class I had a large, clean window and a small shelf on which to place my maps and books. It’s all I ever want when traveling.

* * *

I had two books in mind for this leg of the journey. Once was R.G.D. Laffan’s The Serbs: Guardians at the Gate, which was published in 1917. The second was Stevan K. Pavlowitch’s The Improbable Survivor: Yugoslavia and Its Problems 1918-1988, which came out in 1988, four years before the civil wars. One explains the rise of Yugoslavia; the other its decline.

I had bought Laffan’s history in graduate school in the late 1970s, but never got around to reading it. I knew about Pavlowitch from having read his excellent Serbia: The History of an Idea, which begins: “Serbias have come and gone, and they moved about.” Improbable Survivor begins equally well. He writes: “The development of Yugoslavia evinces one long historical contradiction.”

If you ever ride a local train across central Serbia, Laffan’s book is the perfect companion. It’s short, well written, and ends with the Serbian army stranded on the Greek island of Corfu before there was a Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes or a Yugoslavia.

At its core Guardians is a diplomatic history of the Balkans between the Treaty of Berlin and the outbreak of World War I. Although a British subject, Laffan fought on the Serbian side during the war, and his book is the product of lectures that he prepared for the troops while serving in battle.

In summary fashion, it describes how Serbia had to navigate between the rival ambitions of Austria, Germany, and the declining Ottoman Empire. Of the Serbs, he writes: “They hate Austria more than Turkey, because Turkey only scourged their bodies, while Austria had stifled their souls.”

I love any book that, in trying to explain the problems in the Balkans, begins with a chapter on the 1878 Treaty of Berlin, which was Otto von Bismarck’s attempt to mediate a European peace to the advantage of the central powers.

Laffan writes:

…Count Andrassy [the Austrian foreign minister in 1878] could congratulate himself on having successfully taken a long stride [with the railway approved] towards the coveted Salonika, by thrusting the Austro-Hungarian armies between Serbia and Montenegro [in the Sandžak], and firmly establishing the imperial influence in the western half of the Balkans [Bosnian occupation]; Prince Bismarck was glad to see Austria-Hungary forgetting her exclusion from Germany and setting her face towards the East, where she would be a useful agent for German plans and German kultur; while Mr. Disraeli saw in the Austrian advance a substantial check to Russian aggression.

The Berlin treaty left Serbia yet another aggrieved party in the Balkans. He writes:

…the net result of the treaty of Berlin was to thrust Serbia further into the toils of Austrian hegemony. The Austro-Hungarian armies were now on the Serbian frontier from Roumania all the way round to Mitrovitza in the Sandjak. Serbia saw herself cut off from her sister territory of Bosnia and the path to the Adriatic in a fair way to be closed forever. She was later to find her other neighbours Bulgaria and Turkey sold to Vienna. Serbia was in an Austro-Hungarian prison, and, if the Treaty of Berlin enlarged the area of that prison, it also strengthened the prison-walls, while the exits were bolted and barred.

And to this he adds: “…we should remember that the Treaty of Berlin had cruelly limited the boundaries of Serbia, excluding from her the Serbs both of Old Serbia and of western Bulgaria.”

Another reason I am partial to Laffan’s history is that he dwells on the railway politics of the Balkans, describing not only how the Novibazar Railway contributed to the outbreak of the Great War, but also how other Austrian maneuvers cut off the Balkans from European development.

He writes: “The system of Hungarian railways was so arranged as completely to cut off direct communication between Dalmatia or Bosnia and Croatia”—something that continues until today.

Of the rail lines in Bosnia, Laffan concludes: “The railways, instead of being made to encourage commerce, were built primarily for strategic purposes, and have been of little value to the agricultural producers.” And he describes the many Austrian attempts to block Serbia (with Russian help) from building the rail line from the Danube to the Adriatic.

Not only did Austria do its best to isolate Serbia—to keep it from “infecting” the crumbling dual monarchy with Pan-Slavism—but on the 1914 assassination of the archduke (whom even the Emperor Franz-Josef could not stand) it decided to “make an example” of the Serbs and crush its aspirations. Laffan writes: “Austria-Hungary saw in Serbia the potential deliverer of the Southern Slavs.”

The book ends with the Serbs retreating across Kosovo toward salvation Corfu. He writes: “It was the end. The Serbs could do no more. They had been attacked by three Powers, betrayed by the Greek government, unsupported by their western allies. They had done all, and more than all, that could be required of any army. They now stood on the farthest limit of their country, on that sacred plain of sorrowful memories [Kosovo], where Tsar Lazar and the Serbian empire had perished.”

Now in most international circles it is considered an anathema to associate Serbs with anything in Kosovo.

* * *

Pavlowitch (who was born in Yugoslavia but became a professor in Britain) is less interested in railway politics, but picks up the story after the Serbs were rescued from Corfu and fought their way back to Central Europe together with the British and French armies—after which they declared their independence.

Forgotten in history is that it was the Serbian victory at Dobro Pole in Macedonia that, as much as any battle, reconfigured the postwar map of Europe.

In particular, Pavlowitch dwells on two salient facts of Yugoslavia’s complicated history—that during World War II the partisans spent as much time fighting their domestic rivals as they did the Germans and that Titoism, building off its invented legends, could not hold the center of such an imagined country.

The Ohio State University Press published Pavlowitch’s book in 1988. I suspect few read it on publication, which is a shame, as it outlines all the reasons why, four years later, Yugoslavia would divide along its ethnic and national seams.

He begins by explaining how Serbs and Croats brought different expectations to their shotgun marriage in 1918, citing the gap between “Serbia’s political tradition, unitary and centralist, looking to the French model, and Croatia’s, born of the ethnic and constitutional complexity of Austria-Hungary.”

Pavlowitch makes the point that all Croatia ever wanted was a mini dual monarchy, as Austria had after 1867 with Hungary, while “the Serbian perspective was focussed on centralism.”

Nor does Pavlowitch have much time for Tito’s economic management skills. He notes that “the two dogmas of Titoism were self-management and non-alignment….” but adds: “Failed experiment, panacea, illusion, self-management needed the framework of an authoritarian state to survive…. Tito endorsed the concept of self-management as a public-relations exercise to rehabilitate Yugoslavia within the ‘socialist’ movement.”

In its last years, all that kept Yugoslavia afloat were soft Western loans. He writes: “As a price for Yugoslavia’s independence from the Soviet bloc, the West has also underwritten the mismanagement of her economy.” That support ended in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down and Yugoslavia no longer was needed as a swing vote in the Cold War.

In the end Titoism was more about Greater Tito than it was about forging an independent, self-sustaining country. Pavlowitch writes: “As a specifically Yugoslav model, it was a myth – a heroic rendering of an historical reality, conceptualized and personalized.”

The West bought into the myth of Tito, as a unifying symbol, as much as did the Yugoslav communist party, and when in the 1980s the artifice began to crumble the United States followed the German position that Europe would be better off with six new countries in the Balkans and many disenfranchised minorities—while the rest of the continent was moving toward an integrated European union.

Pavlowitch ends his 1988 book ominously, writing: “A country cannot, after all, be permanently in search of its birth certificate…. A grand ‘Lebanonization’ of Yugoslavia, as a ‘worst case’, cannot be excluded.”

Next up: Dubrovnik and Montenegro. Read the earlier installments here.

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.