H. Gregson, Buffer states of the Balkans
CHAPTER I  Yugoslavia – The fighting Serbs


IN the early spring of 1940 the Englishman found it good to be in Yugoslavia. The Yugoslavs are pro-Allied and like us for our qualities. The frontier officials give the Englishman a pleasant smile when they hand him back his passport. The waiters in Zagreb change English money at as good a rate as can be got anywhere else, and if the Englishman can speak Serb or Croat he can be sure of pleasant conversation wherever he may be.

English people are perhaps appreciated because of their comparative scarcity value compared with the Germans who flock into the trains at Zagreb. There are all sorts of them – shaven-headed commercial travellers, portly women with the inevitable brown-paper parcels full of food, and journalists-cum-spies–and the malicious pleasure with which the Yugoslavs tell them that they can buy now as much food as they like and eat until their stomachs extend is taken by these Nazis in exile with that humility which characterizes the German all over the world when he is removed from the society of his own countrymen.

Now and again a German tries the Hitler method on a Serb, as, for instance, in a hotel at Belgrade, where a self-important German ' commercial' was invoking the 'Herrgott' and 'Donnerwetters' by the score because he did not get enough Dinars for his Reichsmarks.

But the reception clerk shrugged his shoulders with indifference and the hotel porter looked on with expressionless face. In the end this Nazi paid up and went.

When the Englishman sees these docile Germans parading round the Balkans, one wonders how ever it has come about that the Germans have acquired their reputation of being formidable. They are like sheep without a shepherd, and, as a Croat traveller humorously suggested to one of them, "they had better be on their good behaviour, or else they will be sent back to the Fatherland," which means, of course, black-out and short rations.

Soon after my arrival in Belgrade I had a striking experience of Yugoslav friendliness towards the British. As I was leaving the station a burly police inspector suddenly stopped me and motioned me back to have my luggage searched, together with the score or so of German passengers. Then the inspector asked me whether I was a German. I told him I was English. Whereupon he smacked me on the back, laughed "Bratushka" ('Little Brother'), and motioned me through without formality.

Britain has also many friends among the higher-placed officials in the Yugoslav Civil Service, but to mention names would do more harm than good. The diplomats, naturally, dare not express themselves with the same frankness as the man in the street with no responsibilities.

Common sympathy, engendered by common action against Germany and Austria-Hungary in the last War, may account for much of the Yugoslav regard for Britain. About three hundred Serbs were refugees in Britain during the Great War, and, instead of being treated as outcasts, were allowed to attend English universities. These people learned to know and admire the British, and many of them have responsible positions in Yugoslavia to-day.

But our previous alliance does not alone explain the sympathy of the Yugoslavs for Britain. Italy also fought the Central Powers, but the Yugoslav man-in-the-street suspects the Italians and has a poor opinion of the Italian's fighting capacity.

Fighting capacity is, indeed, one of the main standards by which the Serb, whose life for centuries was one long fight against oppressors, judges other nations.

He has a very low opinion of the Rumanian because, he says, he is a poor fighter. Serbs who go to Rumania for casual work think the Rumanian peasant, as Rumanian intellectuals themselves frankly admit, rather backward.

The Serb respects the Germans, French, Hungarians, and Bulgars because he thinks they are good fighters. But respect does not mean affection. He hates the German. His Slav nature finds something inhuman in the severity with which Germany treats her own subjects who transgress arbitrary laws and the subjects of other nations who have fallen under German domination. He is rather suspicious of the Bulgar because he thinks Bulgaria wants the Vardar Valley (Macedonia), which he considers the backbone of Serbia. Anyway, the Bulgarians twice attacked Serbia without warning, the last time being when she was heavily engaged elsewhere. Nor is the Hungarian trusted, as anyone who has had to frequently travel between Budapest and Subotica and has seen the severe cross-examination of some of the Hungarian passengers at the Yugoslav frontier can testify.

I am not sure that the Serb thinks the British good fighters, but he thinks them the most powerful and clever people in the world, and the Serb loves the all-powerful nation as he loves the all-powerful politician.

A Serb friend of mine, a politician, was sentenced by the Court to imprisonment, with the option of paying a fine. This is no uncommon occurrence for an opposition politician in Yugoslavia.

The sentenced politician could have served the term of imprisonment in the local gaol of his electoral district. He consulted his local advisers as to what he should do. They told him to pay the fine and say nothing about it, because if his peasant electors heard that he could be fined or imprisoned they would no longer consider him the all-powerful 'boss,' and he would lose votes at the next election.

The Germans and Bulgars got nearly to Salonika in the Great War, but Britain won the War. It has made a big impression on the Serb, and he thinks the British cannot lose any war. He is so impressed with our diplomacy that he says: "If you do not know which way to go, do what the British do." Whatever is British is best, and to say "You behave like an Englishman" is one of the greatest compliments one Serb can make to another.

The sympathies of the man-in-the-street are not, of course, of decisive influence in foreign affairs. I cite them merely to show the tremendous latent goodwill there is towards Britain, which might, suitably encouraged and given suitable strategic conditions, be turned to more effective use for the cause of the Allies.

Already, at the time of writing, there are grave dangers to Britain's prestige. Munich and the sacrifice of Czechoslovakia hardly appealed to the Yugoslav, whatever his Government may have thought about it. But the Serb never really thought we would give way to Germany for good. He always considered we were biding our time. And we have to have an extraordinary bad case for it to be worse than Hitler’s.

The conquest of Poland was another sad blow. The Serb expected to see British bombing ‘planes over Germany as soon as Germany bombed Poland. Indeed, more than once Serbs have remarked to roe that had Britain attacked Germany from the air, or managed to save just one piece of Poland from the Germans, we should have had Yugoslavia and the whole of the Balkans fighting with us from the start.

Finland's fate is of more significance to those with the delicate task of directing Yugoslavia’s foreign policy than to the man-in-the-street, and therefore all the more regrettable, but, provided we have learned the lessons of delaying unduly, it need not count too much in the long run.

The average Serb does not consider the Russians such bad fellows – they are rather soft, but good-natured, he thinks.

The Serb has many virtues besides courage. His ability for self-sacrifice in the interests of his country or of illusions, such as those which possess the minds on occasion, of politically minded students, is unlimited. The Serb loves justice and is generous and hospitable.

His self-confidence is unbounded, although this again is not shared by the Government in foreign policy. The tram-driver considers himself as good as the officer, who is among the passengers on the front platform. The lift-boy will talk with complete equanimity to the richest business magnate ascending to his luxury suite. Serb maidens consider themselves too good for housework. Croats are chiefly employed as maids and are at the same time more methodical and cleaner. The Serbs, indeed, work by fits and starts and lack continuity in endeavour. Students absent themselves from studies for days at a time to put in furious bursts of work when they feel like it.

The Serb is rather proud and intolerant. He considers himself, as he is, indeed, the backbone of the State. He has extended the frontiers of this State from the inhospitable Shumadiya Hills in ancient Serbia to the fertile plain of the Banat, adjacent to Hungary and to Croatia, and considers that, without the Serb, Yugoslavia would not exist.

Yugoslavia has a rapidly increasing population of at present 16,000,000 people. Its area is greater than that of England, Wales, Scotland, and the Isle of Man combined. It produces 5,000,000 tons of coal, 600,000 tons of iron ore, 700,000 tons of copper ore, 800,000 tons of lead-zinc ore, and 60,000 tons of chrome ore per annum, besides considerable quantities of antimony, manganese, bauxite (for aluminium), pyrites, coal, and other minerals.

Cereals, such as wheat, barley, rye, oats, and maize, give an annual yield of 8,500,000 tons. Horses, mules, cattle (4,169,000 head), pigs, poultry, and sheep (10,000,000 head) abound.

In picturesqueness, the coastline of. Dalmatia, the mountains of Croatia, and Central Serbia vie with the best scenery in Europe.

Some measure of the magnitude of this achievement, which places Yugoslavia, as regards foreign policy, among the 'satisfied' nations, can be gained by comparison with Serbia's area in 1914 of 48,000 square kilometres, with a population of 4,500,000.

Included in the population of Yugoslavia are 3,300,000 Croats, nearly one-third of the realm. The Croats are more Westernized than the Serbs. Their capital, Zagreb, is a better laid-out city than Belgrade. The Croats are more polished, have a better developed sense of discipline and order, and are good organizers, with considerable business talent.

They occupy the most highly developed part of Yugoslavia and were, until recently, and may be again, one of the chief thorns in the side of the new State.

Meanwhile, the Croat question (or rather Serb question, as it is at time of writing) is of interest to Britain chiefly in so far as it affects the capacity of the Yugoslav State to resist aggression.

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