1990s >> 1991 >> no-1044-august-1991

What Next for Yugoslavia?

When I was at school over forty years ago we were told in our history classes how a young South Slav nationalist, Gavrilo Princep, by assassinating Arch-Duke Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo, had triggered off (1 seem to remember “caused” was the word used) the entire first world war. Whilst not denying a role for such melodramatic gestures, Marxian critics of the capitalist system and its persistent drive to war were never convinced that the enormous conflict that ensued had such a Ruritanian root-cause. It was, instead, the culmination of a lengthy period of economic rivalry between, on the one hand, the established powers such as France and Britain with their imperial systems of guaranteed markets and cheap sources of labour and raw materials and, on the other, the thwarted ambitions of capitalist late-comers Germany and Austria-Hungary.

Woodrow Wilson redraws the map

Following the armistice in 1918, Americas President Wilson acted upon the new super-power status of the USA by redrawing the map of Europe consequent upon the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian and Turkish empires. A key figure of the new pattern of states was the very Yugoslavia that Princep had heralded. The new entity cobbled together some diverse areas at highly varied levels of economic and social development which had in common that most of the kingdom’s new subjects spoke one or other related Slav language. On the other hand they were divided by the fact that the Slovenes and Croats had for centuries formed part of the Catholic society of the Austro-Hungarian Empire whereas the Serbs, Kosovo Albanians, Macedonians, and the Bosnian three-way mix of Catholics, Serbian Orthodox and Moslems, reflected the five centuries of Ottoman Turkish domination that they had undergone. Even the essentially common language of the Serbs and Croats was deeply marked by the differing impacts upon it of Eastern and Western influences. In Croatia the language is written in Roman script. Serbs, Montenegrins and Macedonians write in Cyrillic derived from Greek.

The lack of a common spoken and written language was a major handicap in the development of modern state institutions and in the inter-war years the Serbs, who were the largest ethnic group, were felt by the other elements of the population to exercise far too strong an influence over the kingdom as a whole, especially as the royal family was Serbian. Tito, the post-WWII dictator, took steps to unify Serbo-Croat. This required concessions on the part of both wings of the language. The Serbs had to forgo the use of Cyrillic in those publications brought out in the unified format. However, where variations of grammar or vocabulary needed to be reconciled the Serbian form prevailed. To the more bigoted elements none of the sacrifices could be regarded as acceptable, but educational institutions budgeting for the publication of engineering or medical textbooks of limited circulation were soon to see the merits of the new approach.

Interestingly enough, our political cousins in the USA, the SLP, grappled with this problem in trying to spread the socialist message amongst Balkan immigrants whose settlement was especially concentrated in the Ohio area. Certainly it would be some time before propaganda couched in English would well be understood. But the limited funds of a working-class organisation could hardly run to printing separate publications and pamphlets in two scripts and several South Slav languages including Bulgarian. So perhaps forty-odd years before Tito’s similar efforts with all the assistance of the state-machine and paid academics, a parallel development was brought about by the voluntary efforts of mostly self-educated working men and women.


The Allies’ Wilsonian carve-up of the former empires bore little relation to the over-riding economic practicalities. For example, Czechoslovakia which joined together in an independent republic the Bohemians, Moravians, Slovaks, and Ruthenes (Ukrainians) of the old Austria was said to have inherited a railway network which went from nowhere to nowhere. The Danube basin which has its own natural unity was split between the new Austrian Republic, Czechoslovakia, Hungary. Yugoslavia, Rumania and Bulgaria.

Prior to 1914 the quasi-Marxist Austrian Social-Democrats had engaged in a decade of more of furious debate on the National Question and the socialist attitude towards it. It was evident that a situation which condemned millions of people to gaining literacy, military service and employment in a “foreign” language was cause for real dissatisfaction and resentment. It is also the case that several embryonic capitalist ruling groups in the region were eager and assiduous in fomenting and harnessing these genuine concerns, so divisive of working-class unity, to further their own class interests. In these debates the classic Austro-Marxist school of socialist thought well argued the supra-national, common interests of workers as workers, whilst at the same time accepting as valid the desire for linguistic freedom of choice.

Sadly, the outlook of the majority of Social Democrats was as backward in this regard as in most other respects and Czech, Croat, Hungarian and Rumanian sections of the movement were overwhelmingly in favour of setting up new frontiers rather than getting rid of old ones. Nor should it be thought that the bulk of German-speaking Social Democrats were any different; they too. equally sadly, proved to be imbued with nationalist ideas.

Inter-war Yugoslavia was a shaky construct, highly vulnerable to all the pressures of thrusting German and Italian capitalism and the lure of Russia’s socialist pretensions to a population of workers and peasants coping with the harsh effects of the world slump, massive inflation and the rise of fascism. When the Nazis launched their “Drang nach Osten” and their quest for “Lebensraum” Yugoslavia, with all its internal strife, fell easy prey to the invaders.

The resistance movements which the German and Italian occupying armies brought into being strongly reflected the fiercely divergent elements of Yugoslav society. Tito (a Croat, it is worth remembering) led the most effective guerrilla army which, although operating under a Bolshevik ideology, was virtually the only instance in Axis-occupied East Europe of such a movement achieving victory largely without the aid of the Red Army.

In view of the relatively minor pre-war role of Belgrade’s Communist Party it is not surprising that in the early stages of the occupation the principal resistance movement, led by Draza Mihajlovic, reflected the mainstream conservative, monarchist. Serbian majority. The existence of rival underground armies posed a dilemma for Winston Churchill and the Allied strategists, so Captain Fitzroy Maclean was parachuted into the occupied country to assess the fighting potential of the separate resistance forces. With remarkable timeliness his book of wartime adventures. Eastern Approaches, has just been republished in paperback. No doubt there were quite a few true-blue British Tories who were deeply shocked when Churchill took Maclean’s advice, ceased supplying arms to Mihajlovic’s Chetniks and began aiding the “Communist” partizans instead.

The Chetniks. who had been fighting on two fronts against the Wehrmacht and the Partizans. were forced by this policy into increased collaboration with the Germans. Tito’s forces went from strength to strength. The clerical-fascist puppet state set up in Croatia drew widespread support for their militia, the feared Ustashe, but their fate was tied up with that of their Nazi masters. Another element which tended to side with the Germans were the Muslims. World War I memories of the Turkish alliance with Berlin played a part, as did fond recollections of German sponsorship of Enver Pasha’s schemes for gathering together all the Turkic lands within the Russian Empire of the Tsars and joining them with Turkey in a “Pan-Turanian Empire” under German tutelage. Just as Franco’s use of Moroccan troops in the Nationalist offensive against the Republic brought out all the racist and Christian prejudices of the man in the Spanish street, Serbian Orthodox and Catholics see mirrored in every Yugoslav Moslem “five hundred years of the Turkish yoke”, although by far the greater part of these are descended from Slav converts rather than from Turkish settlers

Those who have been watching blow-by-blow accounts of recent violent incidents on TV bulletins from Slovenia and Croatia might see disturbing analogies with the earlier events referred to above. A united Germany shows all the signs of re-asserting its hegemony over Eastern Europe from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Armed thugs create mayhem amongst people of the other ethnic group. Already the Serbian irregulars are willing to be known, even proudly call themselves, Chetniks. More hesitantly, Croatian auxiliaries are accepting the label being given to them of Ustashe. However, the authorities in Zagreb are keen to maintain their democratic credentials (like Hitler they came to power through elections) as they cannot easily afford to alienate the goodwill of Common Market governments or public opinion. After all, the number of Yugoslav “guest workers” in Germany is second only to the two million Turkish workers there. A good proportion of these “Gastarbeitern” are from Croatia and their cash remittances home are no small consideration in the minds of the economic planners.

Mention of Slovenia may remind some readers of a speaker from our Hyde Park platform in the late fifties. In those days the fact that he was a Slovene was regarded as less noteworthy than that he came from Yugoslavia and wished to repudiate their false claims to being some kind of socialist society with “workers self-management”. The excellence of his arguments was marred a little by his hesitant English but, on the other hand, it did wonders for our efforts to put over the World Socialist perspective of a world without states in which linguistic freedom of choice will be a matter of course

Eddie Grant

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