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


Britain has many powerful friends among Yugoslav diplomats. There is not a Yugoslav of my acquaintance, however, who would sacrifice what he considers Yugoslav interests for the sake of British friendship. Our friends in Yugoslavia are Yugoslavs first of all. Their pro-British feelings can be translated into something effective for the Allied cause only when Applied policy coincides, or can be made to coincide, with Yugoslav interests.

The present Yugoslav Cabinet, headed by Dr. Dragisha Tsvetkovitch, is a Government of National Union. Its outstanding achievement has been the realization of an agreement with the Croats. The failure of M. Stoyadinovitch to agree with the Croats, coupled with his Berlin-Rome leanings, contributed largely to his downfall. One might almost say that Dr. Matchek, the leader of the Croat Peasant Party, sacked M. Stoyadinovitch, and Dr. Matchek is, after Prince Paul, undoubtedly the strongest man in Yugoslavia to-day.

Dr. Matchek is Vice-Premier of the Cabinet, and now, when he comes to Belgrade, and goes to the Hotel Bristol, near the station, armed sentries take up their posts outside the hotel and accord him the honour due to his rank and power.

At the last elections in December 1938 the Government, headed by M. Stoyadinovitch, polled 58.9 per cent, while Dr. Matchek polled 40.21 per cent of the votes. This was made possible only because large numbers of Serbs voted for Dr. Matchek, thereby indicating their opposition to Stoyadinovitch.

The figures do not, however, represent the true state of feelings of the Serbs. For one thing, the Radical Party, the oldest and most respected political party in Yugoslavia, was not allowed to put up candidates. The Radical Party stands for Parliamentarianism and is against the Serb-Croat agreement in its present form, maintaining that the Serbs are not getting a fair deal.

The hold of the Radical Party on the Serbs is bound up intimately with the monarchy.

The earlier Radicals supported Serb agitation against Turkish domination and the term ' Radical' is synonymous in the minds of many Serbs with freedom.

The two outstanding patriotic families of Serb history are the Karageorgeovitch ('Black George’) and Obrenovitch dynasties. Prince Regent Paul is a member of the Karageorgeovitch family. Power in Serbia was held sometimes by one family, sometimes the other, but the Radical Party consistently supported the Karageorgeovitch Dynasty because the Obrenovitch rulers were absolute dictators and wanted no Parliament. The Radical Party fought King Alexander Obrenovitch on this issue, and although the murder of the King in 1903 by a party of officers belonging to the Karageorgeovitch group put an end to the feud between the Radical Party and the Obrenovitch Dynasty (living members of the Obrenovitch family have been compelled to change their names),Radicals still enjoy the reputation of being champions of democratic rights.

So great is the hold of the word 'Radical' on the minds of the Serbs that Dr. Tsvetkovitch, the Yugoslav Premier, recently approached the chairman of the Radical Party (which has no representatives in Parliament under the present electoral arrangement) and offered to accept a job as Vice-President of the Party in order to increase his chances of success at the next elections, which are, by the way, to take place under a new and more democratic electoral law. His request was refused by the Radical Party.

Dr. Matchek's strength is due to the fact that he represents a solid block of united voters. The Serbs on the other hand are split. Even the Radical Party is split on the Serb-Croat issue. Some of the Radicals favour the Serb-Croat agreement and a strong group of Radical dissidents is being built up. Dr. Tsvetkovitch is a member of the unimportant Yugoslav Radical Union.

In addition there is the Agrarian Party and the Independent Democratic Party, not to mention the proscribed Communists, who are very strong in Belgrade and Zagreb.

The present Government headed by Dr. Tsvetkovitch is an attempt to make the best of a system which is fundamentally corrupt. Such political corruption is common to all countries in a stage of evolution and even in countries which are held to have evolved, like France and the United States.

It is the 'spoils of office ' system. The ambition of every Yugoslav seems to be to get a Government job, and when a new Government assumes office the supporters of the former Government lose their jobs. Sometimes even they are imprisoned.

This applies even in the Croatian Peasant Party headed by Dr. Matchek. It is interesting to see the unwashed and very often unkempt peasant supporters of Dr. Matchek trying to waylay him in the carpeted halls of the Finance Ministry, where he has his office in Belgrade. One wants 'just a hundred dinars' to get him back to Zagreb. Another, although seventy years old, wants to know whether it isn't possible for him to get a job in the Administration. An old woman presses for a job for her son in the Internal Revenue Department.

The life of a politician is a luxury which not everyone can afford. The Serb politician is the 'big boss.' When he visits his constituency it is nothing for him to have to buy a round of five hundred drinks for his constituents. Judges in the law courts are amenable to political influence. Few Yugoslavs think of going to law without first speaking to their 'political boss' about it.

A word from the Ministry of Justice to the judge who is trying the case is far more effective than legal argument. The Minister of Justice again is appointed by the political party in power.

Army contracts, post office contracts, railways and telegraphs ... there are so many branches in which political influence can be profitably employed and big rewards obtained that it is no wonder there are so many politicians who think the game well worth the candle.

When a doctor of law is lucky to earn 1500 to 2000 dinars (£7 10s. to £10) a month the M.P.'s salary of 9000 dinars (£45) is very respectable for a poor country. To this come free railway facilities and other privileges.

Dr. Tsvetkovitch gets 15,000 dinars (£75) monthly.

There are, of course, sincere idealists among the politicians, sometimes well-to-do men who find political activity a pleasant and meritorious substitute for a life of leisure. A Yugoslav politician, however, is generally born and not made. He must like the ups and downs of political life, the alternating periods of comparative penury and opulent influence, the excitement of fighting for office. Politics must be in the blood.

When the next elections under the new democratic electoral law are held it may be very important for the Allies. If the Serbs of the Radical Party vote against the Serb-Croat agreement the result will certainly be dissatisfaction among the Croats and further disunity in the State. This will hardly help Yugoslavia to show a strong national front to the world and especially to possible aggressors.

If the opinion of the Yugoslav man-in-the-street is given fuller expression under the new law it may well result in the formation of a Yugoslav Cabinet, still neutral, but less cautiously neutral and more pro-Allied.

The electoral system certainly needs reforming, although Prince Paul knows the capabilities of his countrymen better than anyone else and is not likely to overhasten the introduction of democratic institutions when the people, only recently released from centuries of Turkish oppression, cannot be expected to be ripe for such measures.

Historians might find it profitable to study to what extent the clan system of Serb rural life under the Turks, with the acknowledgment of the head of the clan in the fights against the oppressors, has perpetuated itself in the 'political boss' system now operating.

At the last election M. Stoyadinovitch, by mustering all the officials who had received their jobs (or kept them) through his political influence, and adding the votes of the Magyars, Germans, Slovenes, Bosnian Moslems, and Albanians, got 1,600,000 votes. Dr. Matchek got 1,350,000 votes of which half were Serb votes. But M. Stoyadinovitch took three hundred seats for his candidates while Dr. Matchek was apportioned only sixty seats. It is, as Dr. Matchek said, a comedy. He claimed to know constituencies where the Government candidate polled four votes out of 9000 but got the seat just the same. In another case the Government candidate got the seat with 14 votes against 6500 for the Opposition. There is no secret ballot.

The strength of Dr. Tsvetkovitch, the Premier, is that he is a member of the Government which negotiated the Serb-Croat agreement. What his chances are at the next election it is difficult to say.

He is forty-seven years old – the youngest Premier Yugoslavia has ever had–studied law in Switzerland, contributing at the same time to various Swiss papers, and was elected Mayor of his home town, Nish, in 1923. He had been Minister of Education and Minister of Social Welfare before attaining the highest political office in the land. He is not without a sense of humour. Apparently he did not think greatly of the chances of his Cabinet when he formed it early last year. "I have just been entrusted with the ship of State," he told a number of journalists waiting on him. "Now all I have to do is to come to some arrangement with the crew." A few hours later, with the Cabinet successfully formed, he said: "Now we can sail. Everything is all right, but we will soon have to take the voting urns out of their cupboards," meaning that he thought new elections would not be long delayed.

Dr. Tsvetkovitch is tall and very dark. When I interviewed him on my last visit to Belgrade I could not help thinking there must be Romany blood in his veins. He is a very pleasant conversationalist and his French is perfect. He got to know many Englishmen while working in the I.L.O. at Geneva, and told me that one of his regrets is that he has never been able to visit London. Once he was designated to attend an international conference in London, but political developments caused the postponement of the trip at the last moment.

He has two charming daughters, and likes to run down to his home-town of a week-end.

He is precise when replying to questions, but does not willingly discourse on foreign affairs. His replies to me on this subject are given in a later chapter. The Radicals profess that Dr. Tsvetkovitch is not a strong man, but perhaps their prejudices are due to the fact that the Hotel Paris in Belgrade, built by rich supporters of the Radical Party and from which they derived a large part of their political funds, has been taken over by Dr. Tsvetkovitch's political supporters.

The Radicals are equally scathing about M. Cincar-Marcovitch, the Yugoslav Foreign Minister. He has had a very varied diplomatic experience. Among the towns at which he has been stationed since 1918 are Brussels, Paris, Zara (on the Dalmatian coast), Trieste, Tirana, Ankara, Budapest, Paris, Sofia, Vienna, Rome, and Paris.

He has also been Yugoslav Minister in Berlin, succeeding to the Foreign Ministry from this post. M. Cincar-Marcovitch is a pure Serb, and his family has figured prominently in Serb struggles against the Turks. His wife is a Greek from Corfu, and was born of a Scots mother. Mme. Cincar-Marcovitch speaks English perfectly. One of the stories told about her relates to her Greek blood. The Greeks enjoy a reputation for wiliness, and once she was approached by a Serb, who, ignorant of her nationality, uttered the most uncomplimentary remarks about Greeks in general. The Foreign Minister's wife listened patiently until the speaker ceased, then said calmly with an enchanting smile: "Thank you, but I am a Greek!"

Dr. Matchek, the veteran, grey-haired, imperturbable Croat leader, must be a good politician, otherwise he would never have attained his present prestige. I confess, however, to a sense of disappointment in his abilities as a statesman when he outlined to me, while in Belgrade, his thesis that the essential preliminaries to a new post-War Europe must be the granting of political liberty to small nations (minorities) in every State.

Dr. Matchek has a shrewd, wrinkled face, wears elastic-sided boots, and his grey eyes peer kindly from behind a pair of silver-rimmed spectacles.

Lately he has taken to wearing a collar, which is a decided improvement on the open-necked peasant shirt with which he used to assert almost aggressively his peasant origin, but he still keeps peasant hours ... he is up at six a.m. every day.

The impression he gives of a kindly old gentleman is, however, deceptive. He is a first-class organizer. When Prince Paul visited him at his model farm, about thirty miles from Zagreb, Matchek was able at twenty-four hours' notice to turn out fifteen thousand perfectly disciplined peasants to patrol Zagreb and generally maintain order. The Croat Peasant Party is the best-organized party in Europe, except perhaps the Nazi Party, with which it has no affinities.

Dr. Matchek's house at Kopinec, a village near Zagreb, is the only two-storied building in the village. He specializes in long-horned oxen and prize bulls, and has recently set his countrymen an example in progressive farming by installing a number of grain silos. Matchek is the acknowledged 'squire' of the village, and nobody who saw the visit of Prince Paul to Matchek will easily forget the spectacle of the Croat leader, standing in brown leather jacket and round fur hat at the entrance to his farm to receive the distinguished visitor.

Dr. Matchek also maintains a modest apartment, guarded by his ' peasant boys,' in the University Square in Zagreb. Above the desk at which he sits is a portrait of his murdered predecessor, Dr. Raditch.

He speaks German fluently, which is not surprising, as he was once in the Austrian army.

No doubt Dr. Matchek's hard struggle, during which he has himself gone to prison, for what he considers justice for the Croats, has affected his outlook on world affairs.

He quickly intervened when I referred to the Yugoslav 'nation.' "There is no such thing as a Yugoslav nation," he said. "There is only a Yugoslav State composed of small nations, and we have had to fight more than twenty years to obtain justice for the Croats within the Yugoslav State."

This led Dr. Matchek to a discourse on the peace treaties generally. He told me he thought the present war between Britain and France and Germany was largely due to those statesmen who did not realize that aspirations of small nations like the Croats in Yugoslavia, Slovaks in Czechoslovakia, Ukrainians in Poland and Russia, and Hungarians in Rumania, must be satisfied before economic problems could be settled.

"President Wilson's promises of self-determination were denied," he said. "Thousands of Croats have been placed under Italian rule. If the new Europe is ever to settle down peaceably after the war the principle of the rights of small nations must be recognized."

Dr. Matchek thought the Czecho-Slovak State went to pieces partly through the grievances of the Slovaks, but he is, all the same, no friend of Hitler. "How could my sympathies be otherwise than with the Allies?" he said, "since I have seen what happened to Slavs in Czechoslovakia and Poland?"

I asked Dr. Matchek whether he did not consider that the creation of small nations, on the lines he proposed, from the Adriatic to the Baltic, would not bring insuperable economic difficulties.

It was Dr. Matchek's opinion that the economic difficulties would disappear as soon as the question of national liberty had been solved.

Dr. Matchek thinks highly of Prince Regent Paul. "Thanks to the Serb-Croat agreement, which for the first time since the war satisfies Croat aspirations, the Yugoslav State is now strong," he said. "I pay a tribute to the statesmanship of Prince Regent Paul, which has made the agreement possible."

I asked Dr. Matchek how he would solve the Irish question. He condemned the I.R.A. outrages. "I would hold a plebiscite in Ulster," he said. "If it went against Eire the Irish would have no right to complain."

There is only one man stronger than Dr. Matchek in Yugoslavia. He is Prince Regent Paul. It may be true that Prince Paul at one time longed for release from the political duties thrust on him through the assassination of King Alexander, but now, I understand, as he sees definite achievements to his credit he is determined to see the thing through.

Prince Paul is a man of refined tastes. His education and culture are English, but he is a great admirer of Goethe and once wrote an essay 'Higher Criticism of Dante.' His studies at Oxford – arts, literature, history, and music – bear witness to his aesthetic tastes. More important from the Allies' point of view, he has the greatest admiration for English methods and regards moral values as the most important in life.

Few things have given him greater pleasure in recent years than the honorary degree conferred on him at Oxford at the time of the Coronation. The panelling in his large light study in the White Palace at Dedinye, which looks out over the rolling hills of Schumadija, comes from the library of Lord Chesterfield's house in London, from the room where Lord Chesterfield wrote the famous lines to his son, recommending the motto: 'Suaviter in modo, fortiter in re' (Suave in manner, strong in things), which aptly describes the conduct of the Prince Regent.

Prince Regent Paul's delicate health is not improved by the extremely arduous tasks of office. He rises early and likes to read poetry or some other classical work before retiring.

Born in St. Petersburg forty-five years ago, Prince Paul was the only son of Prince Arsene Karageorgevitch and Princess Demidoff. He lost his mother early in life and was educated by his uncle. Prince Peter Karageorgevitch, who was living at the time in Geneva with his family.

When King Obrenovitch was murdered in 1903, Prince Peter was elected King of Serbia, and Prince Paul continued his studies at the gymnasium as an ordinary student. Then Prince Paul travelled abroad, chiefly in Italy, before coming to Britain. In Britain he has the largest number of friends.

The outbreak of the Great War necessitated his recall to Belgrade, and Prince Paul became an officer of the Guards and aide-de-camp to the King. Post-war years found him busy reorganizing the cultural life of Yugoslavia. He founded many national associations, such as the Red Cross, the Aero Club (which has one of the finest and most modern buildings in Belgrade), the Motor Club, the Christian Association for Young People, etc. He also organized the collection of works of art which had been dispersed owing to the war, and enriched Yugoslav museums with a number of artistic works, ancient and modern, from his own collections.

Prince Paul's marriage to Princess Olga, daughter of Prince Nicolas of Greece and of the Grand Duchess Helen, took place on 22 October 1923. They have three children, Prince Nicolas, who will be twelve this year. Prince Alexander, who is fifteen, and Princess Elizabeth, aged four.

Prince Paul's two sons are at school in England, one at Eton and one at Sandroyd.

When Princess Olga was last in London she engaged a tutor, Mr. Robin Duff, a Scotsman, for her two sons.

Prince Paul is connected with the English Royal Family through the marriage of Princess Marina (the Duchess of Kent), the sister of Princess Olga. But he has also relatives on the German side. His sister-in-law is the Countess Toering whose husband lives in Munich and is reported to be a lieutenant of Hitler. Princess Olga's first cousin is Princess Kyra, who was married in 1938 to Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, son of the Crown Prince. Prince Paul has also a cousin, a Hapsburg, Anton von Hapsburg, who is serving as an airman in Germany.

Prince Paul, in spite of qualifications more suited to the life of a country gentleman than a statesman, has made an astonishing success of his job.

To a large extent this is due to external dangers. The Yugoslavs fear war and most of them believe that internal politics must play second role to the main aim, which is keeping out of war. Although some of them do not trust altogether Prince Paul's alleged pro-Allied leanings, they recognize that he is a Yugoslav first and all the time, with his country's interests at heart.

It is interesting to note how fear of war has strengthened the monarchies so far in Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Rumania. The alternative to monarchy is political chaos and a united front in face of external dangers is a paramount consideration.

Also, however. Prince Paul owes his success to those very qualities of tolerance and moral virtues which he learned to admire in Britain. He is scrupulously honest. He was the chief instrument in negotiating the Serb-Croat agreement, in spite of Serb opposition. To him is due the new electoral law which will put Yugoslav politics on a higher level than in any other Balkan country, except Turkey. He works extremely hard and everyone knows that he does it not because he has designs on the Throne, but in Yugoslavia's interests. It is safe to say that nobody will be happier than Prince Regent Paul to hand over the duties of State to the young King Peter when the time is ripe. Meanwhile, however, he will try to make a success of his job.

But even if the man-in-the-street did not like Prince Paul, Prince Paul's power is absolute. He is Commander-in-Chief of the army. The army has sworn allegiance to him and nobody can deny the authority of the army when it comes to a national or international crisis.

One of the best tributes to his power was a remark made to me by a member of the proscribed Opposition. "When we used to shout in Parliament it was not to impress the people, but to impress Prince Paul," this ex-M.P. frankly admitted. "If Prince Paul is convinced of the necessity and of the wish of the people, or of the wisdom of a certain course, then legislation follows."

If the army is the mainstay in the last resort of Prince Paul, Prince Paul is to an even greater extent the mainstay of the army. The army has no outstanding man even approaching Prince Paul in prestige. The prestige the army does enjoy derives from its direct subordination to Prince Regent Paul, the G.-in-G.

King Alexander, the late King, said that every M.P. was a Dictator. He did not like political people around him. Prince Paul gets on with everybody.

King Alexander broke up all the political parties by making a one party Cabinet. Prince Paul has broken them all up by taking Dr. Matchek, the Croat Peasant leader, into the Cabinet. In other countries this would be a mixed blessing. Among the profusion of political parties and not disinterested politicians, as in Yugoslavia, it has been so far an undoubted advantage.

Many of the most far-sighted politicians of the Radical Party are leaving it and making their peace with the Government over the Serb-Croat agreement. If they are right, the Serb-Croat agreement will be accepted by the majority of Serbs at the next elections, and in this event Prince Paul, as the originator of the agreement (he sacked Stoyadinovitch for not reaching it) will be stronger than ever.

Young King Peter II meanwhile is growing up quite a bright lad. He will be seventeen this year, and has a number of tutors for English, French, Bulgarian, and German. A general is giving him lessons in strategy, and his head tufor insists on strictest discipline. Prince Regent Paul supervises Peter's education and frugality is one of the things he has to learn. His pocket money is in the neighbourhood of 100 dinars (10 shillings) a week, and his main hobby is carpentry which he practises with the son of the Court shoemaker.

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