On the Stambul Train

Basil Davidson

If the sovereign nation-state is truly nearing the end of its useful life, as political philosophers here in Western Europe now seem ready to persuade us, so that regional unities of one kind of another may replace it to the general good, the tendency looks far more problematical further east. Resounding nationalism, or rather nation-statism, the two being by no means necessarily the same thing, is what presently appears to reign from Lithuania to the Black Sea or further east again, and from Slovenia to Albania by way of a newly abrasive ‘Serbianism’. The Bluntschlis of the 1990s, romantic or otherwise, may even now be sharpening their sabres, or at any rate their wits, at the prospect of another bout of Balkan wars. The traveller on the Stambul train will expect adventures. It may be so.

The modern or fairly recent history of the Balkan peoples suggests otherwise, even though it needs a deal of self-assurance to say so. The record, after all, cannot easily be made to appear encouraging. Forty-nine years ago the old dispensation from the First World War erupted in ferocious invasions and still worse civil wars; and bloodshed on a scale never before imagined, not even in these lands of traditional feud and vengeance, continued to rage most horribly until 1945. Old subjections by emperor and tsar might have vanished from the scene, but new dependencies, buttressed by the compromise at Yalta, soon came in to take their place. Just as the powers-that-were had each carved out its sphere of influence or command, ensuring plenty of contingent Balkan ‘struggles’, so now the Soviet master held the reins, with Britain and then America somehow hanging on to Greece. Silence fell, but it was more often the anguished misery of the prison yard than that of any comfortable settlement. Today the Soviet empire is in disarray and conceivably in dissolution, while Greece has found shelter in the EEC. Even allowing for all this, how much in the Balkan region is essentially different, in political terms, from 1919 or 1945?

Probably a great deal, and profoundly. Polemics about this will abound, but useful opinion will turn upon the experience of the Yugoslav peoples, who, as before, will largely command the shape of things to come, whether by numerical importance or geographical position. And the Yugoslav peoples, as it has come about, produced the only major creative innovation to emerge from the merciless killings of the German and Italian military occupation which began in 1941 and evoked, among much else, the response of patriotic resistance by partisan warfare. From 1942 onwards, however sorely distracted by enemy efforts to eliminate them, the Yugoslav Partisan leaders worked with sustained success to instill the principles of a multi-ethnic federalism that could assuage the murderous hatreds of those times, and promise, when peace should come, an acceptable structure of civic co-existence. This remarkable achievement has been generally undervalued in the West, partly because it took shape under Yugoslav Communist auspices, developing a much earlier policy of rare Comintern lucidity, but also because this federalism has lately seemed to fail. Its chief success, which was to contain and disarm Serbian nationalism, is at present seen to face tumultuous defeat.

All the same, this federalism of the Partisans has been splendidly at variance with the repetitive wretchedness of the nation-statism it undertook to displace: unique in this respect, autonomous, and almost certainly of continuing value. When the Partisan brigades, after the debacle of 1941, went into battle for bratsva i jedinstva, for brotherhood and unity among constituent peoples and neighbouring peoples, they drew – as we can now plainly see – an indelible line across the history of imperialism in these parts. Nothing since then has been the same, and much, on balance, has been vastly to the common good. Today, of course, history’s irony has seen to it that the same Communist dispensation should largely undermine, though not yet ruin, this saving achievement. A one-party monopoly of power in Belgrade has spawned regional one-party monopolies, along with the corruptions and self-inflations that belong to this ‘system’. What could be usefully described, in the Sixties, as an effective alliance of regional oligarchies in the six constituent republics and two autonomous regions was gradually dragged down to the level of a dogfight for the ‘spoils’ between as many competitive power-centres.

Each of these centres – Zagreb, Ljubljana, Novi Sad and the rest – has worked its own local dictatorship and scrambled for a bigger slice of the cake, even though most of the cake was being borrowed from abroad. Federal good sense has gone to the devil, while those frailties of South Slav temperament that tend to arrogance or bloody-minded self-assertion (the other side, perhaps, of the coin of courage and self-sacrifice) have assured the devil’s ample payment. As much as anywhere, in short, single-party dictatorship has worked overtime at digging its own grave. Stalin’s ghost must have grinned at the spectacle. That monarch of the East never believed in Balkan peoples coming to any good, and now these contumacious Yugoslavs, the very same who had slammed the door on his control in 1948, were doing their best to prove him right. Very true: but the value of this federalism remains. No one has yet been able to imagine an outcome to the batterings of the Second World War that might have proved more hopeful than the general reconciliation and settlement which followed on the arrangements foreshadowed by the Partisan leadership in 1942, and which, if badly shaken, still endure.

What now seems likely to prevail, all this being so, is not the breakdown of Yugoslavia into a cluster of would-be sovereign nation-states, but a fresh attempt, early messages of which may even now be heard above the uproar, at combining the political virtues of federalism with the economic amenities of a unified market in which state and private ownerships will work together. The excessive decentralism which gave the six republics and two autonomous regions (now one) a virtual stranglehold on federal policy will have to give way to effective economic government from Belgrade. Ingrained habits of bureaucratic self-interest and sabotage will make this at best difficult: but the only alternative can be secession. And if loud voices clamour at the moment for secession, there are more who question whether the world of today will be at all inclined to salute the arrival of a mob of mutinous Balkan states, almost none of which has sufficient means of self-support. Enjoy it or not, the Yugoslavs are likely to be stuck with one another.

Do I hear the flutter of anguished letters of dissent? It will be wise to move to practical examples. The ‘struggle’ in General Svetozar Vukmanovic’s welcome and well-translated memoir is concerned largely with one of these examples, the most instructive of any that has arisen from this whole teased issue of federalism versus nation-statism. It is that of the Macedonians. They are a people who may fairly claim to have contributed more than most of their neighbours to the sombre annals of frustrated nationalism. Their severe though often splendid country of moors and mountains, cascading torrents and slow pleasing rivers, towns and places out of time whose very names, so often in the past, have had to count as banners of dissent or labels of revolt, became the cockpit of cockpits of Balkan conflict: but for no initial fault of the Macedonians. The real trouble lay in the imperial partition of Macedonia into three parts. In 1919, after the feuding of the pre-1914 Balkan wars, most of Macedonia was awarded to Royal Yugoslavia, while a substantial part (‘Pirin Macedonia’ in the nationalist literature) was fast enclosed within Bulgaria, a small part (‘Aegean Macedonia’ ditto) stayed in Greece, with some allowance, if only to ensure maximum dispute, for a fragment handed to Albania. So Macedonia became an arena of nation-state rivalry that was necessarily, in these circumstances, an arena of rivalry between the external patrons of the nation-states in question. This is why, as Vukmanovic says, ‘it has been possible to talk of the Balkans as a “powder-keg”.’

But are the Macedonians a nation? Bulgarian nation-statism has always denied it: according to Sofia, the Macedonians, even if they don’t know it, are really Bulgarians. For their part, the Greeks have usually preferred a tactful silence as to the nature of ‘their’ Macedonians, who are in any case relatively few, while Royal Yugoslavia between the world wars simply erased Macedonia from geography as well as history, and labelled it ‘South Serbia’ instead. It remains that none of this ever prevented Macedonians, or at any rate most of them, from continuing to insist that they were neither Bulgars nor Greeks nor Serbs but truly themselves. This they did between the wars with fervent claims and grave memorials, and their sincerity was not erased even by an occasional knife-and-bomb terrorism, at the lunatic fringe, on the part of the ‘Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation’ led by a ruffian named Mihailov – ‘Vancho’ to his enemies, as well as to his friends.

Came the Axis invasions of April 1941, and far worse followed. That part of ‘South Serbia’ adjacent to Italian-occupied Albania was placed under Italian Army control; the Royal Bulgarian Army, as a jackal of the Axis, took what remained into ‘Great Bulgaria’; while the Wehrmacht saw to it that ‘Aegean Macedonia’ should be properly effaced. Yet in strong contrast with the rest of Yugoslavia, no partisan warfare on any scale developed in Macedonia until as late as 1943. This was then seen not to be because the Macedonians were content to be effaced: but the actual reasons for their quiescence were much in question.

Vukmanovic convincingly explains these reasons. Sent by Tito in 1942 to overcome quiescence and start a Macedonian insurrection, which he soon did, he shows that the chief problem was to bypass an attentisme that derived from Royal Bulgarian repression but still more, and decisively, from Bulgarian Communist calculation. With a wealth of detail that will try the reader’s patience but is nonetheless relevant, he sets forth the crucial difference in strategy between the Yugoslav Communists and their comrades in Bulgaria and Greece. The latter were above all concerned to meet the wishes of Moscow. These supposed that revolution would arrive with the Soviet Army, as and when this might be, and that the task meanwhile of Communist leaders was to nurture revolutionary thoughts among the workers (‘the proletariat’) of the towns. There might be anti-Axis sabotage, but insurrection would be ‘adventurist’. The peasants in their vast rural majority could best be left to whatever fate might befall them. So the Bulgarian Communist leaders sat in the towns and waited, while their Greek comrades left the towns, however large the irony, only at the urging of British military agents, and very late in the day at that.

If for complex reasons, the Yugoslav leaders took from the first an entirely different line. They held, and were to be proved entirely right, that an eventual revolution could be developed only from an immediate insurrection on as wide a scale as possible. The two objectives had to be inseparable. Fighting the invader was a patriotic duty: but for this to happen ‘there had to be prospects, right from the beginning, for new and just social relations.’ The place of leaders must therefore be ‘in the mountains’ alongside revolutionary fighting units, while workers in the towns must be led to leave the towns and join those units so that, by the end of the war, they would dominate the political as well as military prospect.

This is what happened in most of Yugoslavia, by 1944 even in Serbia, and ‘Tempo’ Vukmanovic was just the kind of man to make it happen in Macedonia. Only 31 in 1943, when Macedonian insurrection got into its stride, Tito’s plenipotentiary had come through the fire and slaughter of two appalling previous years with a courage and confidence that are barely visible from this personally modest account. One remembers him, admittedly from somewhat later, as having an easygoing charm and generosity quite at odds with a fearsome reputation. But the reputation was not unjustified, and the perils that he lived through may be hard in these peaceful times even to imagine.

He offers some extraordinary scenes and events. Having changed sides at the last possible moment, the Bulgarian Army was duly accepted as an ally of the Soviet Army, and had to be similarly accepted by the Yugoslav Partisan Army, against which it had fought with a singular brutality. Yet enough soon proved to be enough, and when it came to accepting these same Bulgarian troops on liberated Yugoslav soil, Tempo was despatched to object. He did famously object, and here records a memorable scene with a Soviet marshal named Tolbukhin. The Bulgarian troops in question were removed.

There is much to interest the specialist, not least Tempo’s record of his attempt in 1943 to form an inter-Balkan liaison headquarters for all the various national resistance movements in the southern theatre, a project finally knocked on the head by Tito and Milovan Djilas. They did this because they suspected, as Djilas tells in Wartime, a possible northward insertion of British influence. The British, as it happened, opposed the same project for precisely the opposite reason: a Balkan ‘general staff’ (though Tempo evidently envisaged nothing quite so weighty as the term implies) might, they much more reasonably suspected, increase Greek Partisan recalcitrance to British orders. Which also shows that there is no good Balkan story without its whiff of ‘spy mania’. The project in any case came to nothing. Each of the movements went its separate way.

In 1945, at war’s end, most of Macedonia achieved a real autonomy for the first time in centuries as part of the Yugoslav federation, and, allowing for the frailties of human nature and one-party maladministration, has lived peacefully if not lavishly ever since. What more might have been achieved by a wider Slav federation was rapidly seen to be beside the point, since Stalin was determined to destroy any such development. Yet the same point may now arise, if not immediately, from the events and consequences of 1989. For if continued or reinforced nation-statism, momentarily canvassed in the sudden freedoms of today, is after all found to have no potential for improving everyday life in these lands, then we may at last be moving into a time when the sacred cause of nationalist frontiers will lose its disruptive force. It may then appear, beyond current squabbles, that federalism will be able to meet every reasonable demand of cultural and political nationalism (as looks now likely, among other Western European examples, with Catalonia and possibly Euzkadi) while reducing the burden of centralised bureaucratic tyranny. Let nationalities flourish and be free: but sovereign nation-states join the debris of the past? Not such a bad slogan, perhaps, for new travellers on the Stambul train.