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


In Belgrade I had the pleasure of a chat with Dr. Matchek, the veteran Croat leader. As regards the sympathies of the Croats in the struggle between the Democracies and Nazi Germany, we need have no fear.

"My sympathies and the sympathies of the Croats are wholeheartedly with the Allies," Dr. Matchek said. "How could it be otherwise after we have witnessed the fate of Czechoslovakia and Poland?"

He was also convinced, he said, that the Allies would win the War a conviction which is fairly general throughout the Balkans but said that the time it would take them to do so was another matter.

Then Dr. Matchek, who has the habit of rolling his own cigarettes from a silver case he carries in his waistcoat pocket, said with a smile that the Croats were grateful to Hitler.

But for Hitler and the threatening foreign situation created through his policy, he said, the Serbs and Croats would never have come together. "The danger from without called for unity within," he added, and said that Yugoslavia had never been so strong as she was today.

Dr. Matchek, who is Vice-President of the Yugoslav Cabinet, undoubtedly speaks for the majority of Croats as regards their sympathies for the Allies. He polled 40.21 per cent of recorded votes at the last election, including Opposition Serbs, which, when one takes into account that the Croats form scarcely a third of Yugoslavia's population, is remarkable.

If Hitler made war on Yugoslavia I am convinced the Croats would be with the Allies and with their fellow-Yugoslavs almost to a man.

But if, as Dr. Matchek said, the Croat aspirations within the Yugoslav State have been largely satisfied, there is no such content on the part of the Serbs and, as there is many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip, so there are many dangers to Yugoslav internal unity which may arise before aggression takes place, which in turn may easily affect Yugoslavia's powers to resist aggression.

Dr. Tsvetkovitch, the Yugoslav Premier, told me, and his opinion I found confirmed in most enlightened Serb circles, that the Serb-Croat agreement (the so-called Sporazum) completed in August 1939, may be safely considered to be of 'as far-reaching a consequence to Yugoslavia's future as any other single fact in her recent history.'

This agreement granted the Croats concessions which they had pressed for, and for which Dr. Matchek had suffered imprisonment, ever since the incorporation of Croatia in the Yugoslav State in 1918.

It provided that two of the nine existing provinces of Yugoslavia, together with seven adjacent districts in which Croats predominate, should be joined into one 'banovina' of Croatia, under a Croatian governor. This 'banovina' gave the Croats an area equal to 26.6 per cent of Yugoslavia, with an estimated population of 4,423,000, of whom 3,216,000 are Croats. The Croats were also given full autonomy in matters of trade, industry, forests, mines, health, education, and justice, the power to be exercised by the 'Ban,' or governor, in the name of the Regent of Yugoslavia and by a Croat Assembly, sitting in the Croat capital of Zagreb.

The Central Government in Belgrade, however, retains control of foreign affairs, the army, foreign trade, public security, and State communications.

The Croats have still complaints. They want fuller representation in the army and a larger share of the budget allocations for Croatia, maintaining that they contribute by their commerce and industry in overwhelming proportion to the revenues of the State, without getting a proportionate share of State grants.

The attitude of the more enlightened Serbs to the Sporazum is that it is worth the sacrifice of a little Serb pride to have the State strong, especially in time of external danger. It has also added external significance in that, by showing the capacity of Croats and Serbs, both of them Slavs with a language nearly akin, to live together in harmony, the Serb-Croat agreement lays the foundations for that bugbear of many another Balkan State, a Pan-Slav State stretching from the Adriatic to the Black Sea and including the Slavized Bulgarians.

The Sporazum encounters opposition from many Serbs, however. The Radical Party, Yugoslavia's oldest and most respected political party, which is proscribed under the present semi-dictatorial regime, objects to the agreement partly because it was negotiated by a political opponent, Dr. Tsvetkovitch, the present Premier, and partly because it hits the Serb in his most tender spot his national pride.

The Serbs think that they are the backbone of the State, and the granting of autonomy to the Croats, former enemy subjects, is a hard pill to swallow. They object to a Croat Governor, who is not responsible to the Central Government, and ask: "Did the Serbs create the Yugoslav State or the Croats?" Worse still, about a million Serbs are under Croat rule in the new semi-autonomous Croat State, and the Serb recognizes nobody but a Serb as master. This is one of the reasons why Croats do not get to a large extent into the higher commands of the Yugoslav army. Another reason is that many of the elder Croat officers were officers in the Austrian armies, which had different traditions from the Serb forces. Also, says the Serb, while Croats can come into Serbia and take part in industries and make money, the Serb cannot do the same in Croatia because of the Sporazum. Further, they allege that an autonomous Croatia gives Serbia the status of a 'banat,' not that of a central authority which smaller peoples should acknowledge.

The question is complicated by religious prejudices. The Serb is not spiritually inclined, although most Serbs come under the ecclesiastical rule of the Serb Orthodox Church. The Croat, on the other hand, is chiefly Roman Catholic, and that to the Serb smacks of Popery and Italian influence. The bitter Serb opposition to the Concordat with the Vatican arose largely out of such prejudices. They said the Concordat reflected on the dignity and power of the Serb Church. For the same reason the average Serb cannot tolerate the idea of autonomy for the Bosnians, who are chiefly Moslems, which savours to the Serb of Turkish overlordship.

The Serb also thinks the Croat rather unstable, given to political controversy ("three Croats, four political parties," he says), and alleges that Croatia could never found a State or even exist in modern times without the Serb State-building gift.

The Croats have equally cogent arguments against the Serbs. The Croat-Serb agreement is likely to be one of the main issues at the next general election in Yugoslavia, and friends of Yugoslavia who desire to see a strong State will watch anxiously the outcome. This time it is the Serbs, not the Croats, who are aggrieved.

Dr. Matchek has succeeded in bringing practically all Croats under his banner. Should further friction ensue between him and the Yugoslav State, however, it is by no means improbable that those Croats outside Dr. Matchek's Croat Peasant Party would receive numerous recruits.

These Croats are even more dangerous to Yugoslav unity than the comparatively moderate Croats of Dr. Matchek. Some of them want a separate Croat State, completely independent of Serbia. Others want Yugoslavia divided into four parts Croatia with Slavonia and Dalmatia; Serbia with South Serbia; a separate Slovenia; and Bosnia combined with Herzegovina and the Zeta province. Still others are for collaboration with Germany.

Some Croats are Communist or very extreme Socialist. They offer a fruitful field for foreign intrigue, of which more is related in another chapter.

In addition to Croats there are German, Hungarian, Rumanian, Bulgarian, and Albanian minorities. Of these the Germans (400,000) and Hungarians (476,000) are potential trouble-makers only in so far as the central authority is weakened. An external crisis might give them the opportunity of venting imaginary or real grievances and sabotaging Yugoslavia's powers of resistance to aggression.

The 400,000 Germans live chiefly along or near the Danube, and are controlled by organizations and instructions from the Reich in a manner similar to that which has now become a feature of Nazi organization abroad. At one time these Germans were encouraged to buy land f along the valleys of the Danube, Save, and Drave, perhaps with the object of creating a new Sudetenland. The Germans in Yugoslavia are taught to be unsympathetic towards the Croats.

Since the rape of Czecho-Slovakia, however. Hitler is not likely again to try Sudeten methods. Brute force, undisguised, will be his argument if he wants this part of Yugoslavia, and his minority will function, at least the active Nazis among them, as saboteurs and spies if given the chance.

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