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


Yugoslavia is a State with growing pains.

In three respects she is the strongest of all the Balkan States, except Turkey. She has the finest fighters in Europe, large mineral and agricultural resources, and those swiftly developing industries without which no State can wage a modern war.

In other respects she is the weakest of all Balkan States. Because she has not yet grown up her minorities are potential trouble-makers in times of crisis; secondly, she has the longest frontiers to defend of any Balkan State, and these two factors combined make Yugoslavia a hotbed of intrigue for major Powers and smaller 'revisionist' Powers like Hungary and to a lesser extent Bulgaria.

When would Yugoslavia fight?

Most certainly if she were invaded. "Yugoslavia," Dr. Tsvetkovitch told me, "would defend her territorial integrity against anyone."

But would she fight if Rumania were invaded by a major Power? When I put this question to Dr. Tsetkovitch he said that Yugoslavia would abide by her Treaty obligations and relied on the solidarity of the Balkan Entente.

This is a somewhat evasive reply.

Yugoslavia's main obligations towards Rumania were contained in the Statute of the Little Entente signed at Geneva on 16 February 1933. The Pact was aimed primarily at revisionist Hungary, and under the Statute every signatory undertook to make no agreement with an outside State changing the actual political position of the Little Entente without the consent of the other signatories. The Pact of the Little Entente took the place, as far as Yugoslavia was concerned, of the treaty between Rumania and Yugoslavia of 7 June 1921. This latter treaty followed the clash with Hungary after the return of the Emperor Karl to Budapest on 23 April 1921.

The Statute of the Little Entente was effectual against Hungary and Bulgaria so long as Austria remained an independent State. When Hitler took Austria, jeopardizing and subsequently invading Czecho-Slovakia, the most important prop of the Little Entente fell to the ground. Yugoslavia is at the present time under no obligation to assist Rumania if she is attacked, according to this Little Entente Pact.

Yugoslavia's present direct political obligations to Rumania are contained in the Statute of the Balkan Entente, of which Turkey, Greece, Rumania, and Yugoslavia are signatories.

This Pact is directed chiefly against Bulgaria and guarantees the maintenance of territorial divisions existing in the Balkans.

By Article 1, Greece, Rumania, Turkey, and Yugoslavia guarantee mutually the security of their Balkan frontiers. This is the crucial article of the Treaty. When it was drafted, the question of German or Russian aggression was not envisaged. Tackling smaller States like Hungary or Bulgaria is a very different proposition from tackling a major Power.

Also, what do 'Balkan frontiers' mean? Is Bessarabia, Rumania's province re-acquired from Russia, a Balkan frontier? Is Rumania's western frontier with Hungary, which encloses the province of Transylvania so much desired by Hungary, a Balkan frontier?

The answer, it seems, is in the negative, and I quote the words of M. Miloslavovitch, editor of Belgrade's most influential newspaper, Politika, for the statement: 'There is nothing in any Treaty signed by Yugoslavia implying her help for Rumania if Rumania is the object of aggression by Germany or Russia.'

Even were such help stipulated, however, in the present state of international flux it would be impossible to say what the attitude of any small country would be towards aggression by a major Power against a neighbour if that small country were in a sufficiently exposed position. Norway and Sweden would not commit themselves openly with Finland, although the firm bonds uniting the Northern Countries has been one of the main themes of Scandinavian propaganda for years. France's evaded obligations towards Czecho-Slovakia also come to mind. Yugoslavia, were she threatened along her vulnerable frontiers by Italy, as well as Germany and Hungary, for instance, could not be blamed for finding discretion the better part of valour if there were simultaneous aggression against Rumania, especially if there were no prospects of effective help from powerful allies.

This help might be available through Turkey, one of Yugoslavia's co-signatories to the Balkan Pact, who is in alliance with the Allies.

What is inconceivable is that Yugoslavia would wage war against the Allies.

Factors which might induce the Yugoslav Government to take up arms against a powerful aggressor include:

1. The realization that once war starts in a Balkan State it will most probably spread in any case to all the Balkans, if history is any guide.

2. The addition of yet another frontier with a major Power, i.e. with Germany if Germany were to overrun Rumania, would put the final touch to Nazi military and economic domination of Yugoslavia.

3. If she did not fight and were thus deprived of her allies, Yugoslavia would be in no position to resist either Hungarian or Bulgarian revisionist claims, not to mention Italy's Dalmatian aspirations. It would be the beginning of the end of the Yugoslav State.

An agreement between Russia and the Allies would have been very valuable to the Allies in bringing more effective support for the Allied cause in Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. One does not imagine that Yugoslavia, a Slav country, would willingly fight Russia, whatever the circumstances.

Yugoslavia's most outstanding political achievement in the external field in recent years has been undoubtedly her Treaty of Eternal Friendship with Bulgaria. Yugoslav Statesmen are of opinion that this removes the possibility of Bulgarian interference with Yugoslavia if she were engaged in fighting on other fronts. By the treaty Bulgaria has also seemingly renounced her interest in the Macedonian question, that relic of the Balkan wars which embittered Yugoslav-Bulgarian relations for so many years.

Bulgarian terrorists like Ivan Mihailoff still try to keep the Macedonian question to the fore, and it is possible that Nazi and Italian agents will be able to make use of such terrorists to create unrest in the new Yugoslav State. Official Bulgaria, however, does not countenance these terrorist activities.

Dr. Matchek's plan for settling the question of Bulgarian minority grievances in Macedonia is the formation of a combined Yugoslav-Bulgarian State stretching from the Adriatic to the Black Sea. He forecast the formation of this Slav economic and political bloc of twenty million people. "I do not regard this as a remote contingency," he told me, " but I hope to see it realized within my lifetime."

However much the Bulgarians may be sentimentally inclined to the notion of a big Slav bloc, it is extremely doubtful whether King Boris and his advisers think the same. There is the question of monarchy. Are there to be joint rulers Prince Paul and King Boris or will one have to go? The Serbs, it may be said with certainty, would never part with their beloved Karageorgeovitches, whose history is so bound up with the history of Serbia. The Bulgarians are likely to feel the same about their King.

Relations between Yugoslavia and Bulgaria are not so cordial that the Bulgarians do not suspect Serb 'Imperialism,' when Serbs advance the formation of this bloc. Croat enthusiasm for a Slav bloc, comprising Yugoslavs and Bulgarians, probably goes a little too far. Dr. Matchek is something of a visionary rather than a practical man in foreign affairs. This 'Pan-Slav' idea causes great mistrust in Turkey, Athens, and Sofia, while M. Gafencu told me that he did not see the necessity for it. Italy would certainly object. The trouble in all these Balkan States is that, while brothers of equal size or preferably small brothers make good partners, big brothers are apt to become uncomfortable neighbours.

Nor, pending further industrialization of Yugoslavia, can one see any great economic advantages accruing to the Bulgarians from Dr. Matchek's proposed union. Yugoslavia and Bulgaria are predominantly agricultural countries and trade between the two countries is insignificant in spite of all efforts to improve it.

From the Serb point of view there is also this objection. Serb politicians, who find it hard to agree to equality with the Croats absorbed by the Yugoslav State, would find it still more difficult if they were in a Parliamentary minority to a combination of Croats and Bulgars.

* * *

From the point of view of winning the War, how can the Allies improve their position in Yugoslavia?

Germany took about one-half of Yugoslavia's trade last year, and this represents a considerable hole in Britain's blockade.

Germany's trade figures with Yugoslavia are as follows :
Exports to Yugoslavia
   Dinars    £
1937 . . .  1,694,470,000   8,472,000
1938 . . . 1,618,065,000   8,090,320
1939 . . . 2,182,200,000 10,910,000
Imports from Yugoslavia
   Dinars    £
1937 . . . 1,361,293,000   6,806,000
1938 . . . 1,813,864,000   9,069,000
1939 . . . 2,531,000,000 12,655,000

Total Yugoslav imports for the same years were 5,233,771,783 dinars, 4,975,341,932 dinars, and 4,757,382 dinars respectively, while her exports were 6,272,402,889 dinars, 5,047,433,484 dinars, and 5,521,187 dinars.

Britain can increase her share of Yugoslavia's trade and decrease the Nazi share by :

1. Offering cash for Yugoslav exports. Without foreign exchange Yugoslavia finds it difficult to cover certain of her requirements in foreign markets. Her trade with Germany is on a barter basis.

2. Offering the armaments Yugoslavia so badly needs for national defence, to obtain which Yugoslavia would be prepared to divert some other trade with Nazi Germany.

3. The system of pre-emption (buying-up of goods destined for Germany).

4. Withholding certain essential commodities produced only in countries controlled by the Allies, such as rubber, cotton, etc.

This latter measure is in the nature of economic pressure, and is only used when other methods fail.

None of these methods, however, are as effective as the German method of menaces.

Yugoslav statesmen, it is true, maintain that Yugoslavia's economic needs are the key to the problem. When I asked Dr. Tsvetkovitch how relations between Britain and Yugoslavia could best be consolidated for the more effective prosecution of the Allies' war with Germany, he said: "The French say 'Cherchez la femme,' but I say cherchez a resoudre les problemes economiques."

All Balkan statesmen harp on the economic theme when one wishes to talk of the war. Neutral statesmen find economics the only safe subject on which they can discourse freely, and so many platitudes can be expressed that even the sensitive Nazis are not likely to be offended.

The very fact that the conversation is almost invariably switched to economics, however, shows how effective Nazi threats are. If they were not so effective, neutral statesmen would discuss foreign affairs with less reserve.

It is the opinion of more than one qualified observer that until Britain can counteract this fear of Germany and German military pressure by arrangements to support these countries in a military sense, if they make a stand against Germany's threats, economic negotiations will beg the issue.

Germany finds her soldiers on Yugoslavia's frontiers far more effective than cash. Italy's presence in Albania is a far weightier argument in dealing with Yugoslavia than British trade experts are in Belgrade.

Even as a long-term policy, however, it will be in Britain's interest to develop her trade with Yugoslavia. These Balkan countries must be given outlets for the products elsewhere than with Germany if economic chaos and perhaps revolution is to be spared them when Germany is beaten.

I broached this subject with Dr. Tsvetkovitch and asked him whether Yugoslavia could continue to exist without the German market. He replied that Yugoslavia was endeavouring to create industries of her own (which would make her independent of German manufactures bartered for Yugoslav agricultural products), and that this tendency could best be assisted by the creation of political conditions for the long- and short-term investment of cheap home and foreign capital in Yugoslav industry.

This seems, however, something which can best be done when Germany is beaten, for what country is likely to invest capital in Yugoslavia so long as Yugoslavia must bow to Nazi threats, and how are the necessary political conditions for foreign capital investment to be created when fear of Nazi policy is the keynote of Yugoslav relations with the Allies?

Serbs often reproach the Englishman, saying that we have neglected their country. Even had we not neglected it, however, it would have made no difference to Germany's superior strategic position with which she can impose her will on Yugoslavia.

Something has come over the fighting Serb. The man-in-the-street is all right. He is pro-Allied and hates, as only a Serb can hate, the injustice of Germany's cause. Her treatment of the Poles and Czechs is abhorrent to him.

But the diplomats and certain elderly, comfortably-situated Serbs are very different. Fear, although they will not admit it, has distorted their judgment. They refuse to see that the Allied cause is Yugoslavia's cause, and use all sorts of specious arguments. Take this leader in Politika, Belgrade's leading newspaper, following the Finnish-Soviet peace treaty :

The article praised the Swedes for sticking to their neutrality even at Finland's expense and dwelt with satisfaction on the fact that, at any rate, peace had been restored. It went on :

'For this the Scandinavian countries' refusal to allow the passage of Allied troops is responsible ; there was, indeed, no obligation for Sweden to go to Finland's assistance, since Scandinavian friendship is based on independence and neutrality.'

The article added that if Finland emerged from the war with reduced territory, she also emerged with increased prestige. 'Moreover, she has given Sweden the chance of displaying uncompromisingly her attitude of neutrality which will ever remain as a classical example of the way to maintain it.' Since then, Norway has happened.

If the Yugoslav General Staff shares this view (and the article had the approval of the Yugoslav Government censor), the Allies would have little chance of rendering help through Yugoslav territory to Rumania or any other small Balkan country menaced with German or Russian aggression. It is to be hoped that the Yugoslav Government draws the obvious lesson that, if Yugoslavia were attacked afterwards in her turn, her appeals for help would be in vain.

In this respect the average man-in-the-street in Yugoslavia is more far-sighted than the diplomats. He realizes instinctively that a German victory means the end of Yugoslavia. He has the fate of the Austrians, Czechs, and Poles to guide him.

This does not alter the fact that war would be a calamity for Yugoslavia only second to the loss of her self-respect which would follow if she refused aid or refused to allow aid to be given to other Balkan States with whom she is befriended.

Nobody who compares Yugoslavia to-day with the State that emerged after the Great War can fail to be struck with the great strides made. Belgrade's pot-holed roads of 1927, which gave the pedestrian a mud-bath if he stepped off the sidewalk, are now cobbled and in some places paved. Magnificent new Government offices, hotels, and imposing buildings have made of Belgrade a modern town. One can sympathize with the Serb who, proudly indicating these achievements, laments: "All will be destroyed if we go to war. We would have to start anew."

But Yugoslavia is still an agricultural country.

A manual labourer earns in the neighbourhood of 900 dinars (£4 10s.) a month, and a clerk 1200 dinars (£6). A maidservant gets 300 dinars (£1 10s.). The lowest paid of all men in the cities are those in Belgrade who pick the snow and ice out of the tramlines in winter at a wage of 20 dinars (2s.) a day, plus food.

The Yugoslav does not want war. He is convinced Britain will win and says: "You will win without us," thus consoling himself for his inactive role.

Yugoslavia sided with us against Italy in the matter of sanctions. To what extent our own policy is to blame for the cautious neutral policy Yugoslavia pursues to-day is a matter for speculation. Our acquiescence in the conquest of Austria by Hitler put a powerful German army on Yugoslavia's frontiers and altered the whole course of her anti-Hapsburg policy of post-war years. Then came Czecho-Slovakia, aptly described to me by a respected British diplomat as 'a millstone round the neck of British diplomacy.' Poland, with her thirty-three million inhabitants, went down under the Nazi machine in three weeks. In Finland we were too late. Norway's fate hangs in the balance. The Serb asks: "What chance would Yugoslavia stand?"

To let these countries like Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Rumania equip themselves with British armaments is not enough. The armaments will be lost if they have to fight without speedy help a powerful aggressor. The Allies' war is a war on behalf of the small States, but if we want them to make a stand against Nazi economic domination we must have the force ready to back them up for any eventuality that may arise out of their stiffer attitude.

Far-sighted strategical dispositions are the key to winning the war in Yugoslavia.

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