January 21, 2013

Serbia pre-1914

Christopher Clark's book on the origins of the First World War is a triumph in one way at least. Its a topic that has been 'done to death' over the years. I've read innumerable studies myself about it from the classic (AJP Taylor) to the more modern (Norman Stone)- and the basic contours of the crisis which provoked the war are familiar to almost everyone who knows anything about European history. We are all jaded when it comes to 1914- which is why saying something new (at least to those who aren't experts) is so intriguing. Clark's newest work on the origins of the war does indeed start with something new- he starts where so few books about the war start- not in London, Berlin, Paris, Petersburg or Vienna but in Belgrade.

Of course once you think about it Serbia is one of the most interesting players in the war. All the major powers could have a realistic thought about deterring each other or even winning the war: at least that thought could apply to Germany, Russia and Britain and to France and Austria by virtue of their alliances to the big three. Serbia though could have no realistic chance of winning a war with Austria. Secondly we often forget that the twentieth century began as well as ended with a terrorist atrocity that provoked conflict: in 2001 September 11th led to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, in 1914 the death of the Archduke led to the invasion of Serbia and World War One. Of course the conflicts that were produced were entirely different in nature, length, scope and size: but the original pistol shot was similar- an act of a multinational terrorist network that had an intriguing relationship with a state apparatus.

What the case of Serbia reveals interestingly is the link between terrorism, nationalism and modernity. The story Clark tells is one in which those three concepts interlock through the first two decades of the twentieth century to produce the crazy calculation of July 1914. Serbia in the early twentieth century was an economically backward place, heavily dependant on external parties- mostly the French for its continued solvency, and largely rural. Its population were illiterate and its politics were unstable. In 1903, the then Serbian King and his wife had been murdered, and the politics of Serbia were torn between on the one hand democratic civilian politicians who came to prominence in the democratic regime that succeeded him, and on the other the military network of conspirators that got rid of him. Fused with this unstable scenario was a sense of nationalistic irredentism in which the Serbs claimed vast swathes of the Balkans- from parts of Bulgaria all the way to Montenegro. Often these areas were no longer inhabited by people who deemed themselves Serbs: hence ironically that the first lands of greater Serbia to be returned to Serbia post the Balkan Wars (1912-13) were governed as colonies.

What Clark draws out though is an interesting sense of how these factors became intertwined. For example, irredentism made sense to a nation with a growing peasant population but without a manufacturing base (save for making plum jam!). Nationalism worked as a uniting force in a nation that was basically illiterate and where the main unifying force was the power of popular song. The army, in a country without a manufacturing base, became the only route out of the village. Terrorism was an acceptable alternative form of diplomacy in a country without any democratic strength- giving Serbia plausible deniability when for example terrorists supported rebellion in Macedonia in 1907. The conditions of July 1914 flowed out of the politics of a deeply dysfunctional society: a society in which politicians may have been aware of the activities of their own security services because of their insertion of double agents into those services. The picture of Serbia on the edge of war is a vivid one and makes sense of the seemingly mad decisions that the Serbs made- decisions which precipitated Austrian invasion.

Hard as it may be for me to recognise the politicians in charge of Serbia made what seemed to them rational decisions. One of the more penetrating points made by Robert McNamara in the Fog of War (the Erroll Morris documentary about his career) is that we cannot assume our opponents are irrational: they merely proceed from different premises. In the Cuban missile crisis, Castro, Kennedy and Krushchev were all rational actors: the same was true in Serbia in 1914.


edmund said...

You don't think Serbia was rational in a similar way to Austria Hungary against Russia-ie their allies made their behaviour rational?

Gracchi said...

But Austria didn't mobilise against Russia only against Serbia- right up until the eve of war itself, after the Russian mobilisation, the Austrians were mobilised against Serbia alone and Konrad after Russia mobilised had to switch his forces to the Russian front from Serbia.

Austria's policy is actually pretty rational when you think about it: the heir had been assacinated, Serbia had refused to cooperate with Austrian policing operations and the Austrians issued an ultimatum. What's interesting is that the Austrians seem according to Clark not to have been thinking at all about Russian reactions to their ultimatum- there is their miscalculation.

edmund said...

Interesting My point was that becuae they had Russia the Serbs wern't being that irrational (indeed they 'won' the war after all) . In the same way I supect Austria would have backed down from Russia if she had no alies though of course there is Franz Joseph 'if we must fall, let's at least fall wtih honour' (or someting that effect). I'm sceptical they didn't think of Russia at all but needto read the book:) Also . My understanding (which may be wrong) is that the Austrians went much further than a police operation-they wanted to be able to walk over the state

Gracchi said...

I think there are two points there if I can disaggregate.

a. I think the Serbian state's behaviour was irrational in context- partly there is pretty good evidence of official involvement in the assassination- and that the Austrians knew it. THe Chief of Serbian Military Intelligence definitely knew about it and was supporting it. Perhaps also there are the statements after the death- Miroslav Spalajkovic (Ambassador to Russia) issued statements condemning the Austrians for investigating Austrian serbs in Austria for involvement and said the Jesuits were at the root of what had happened. Pasic, the Serbian Prime Minister, announced before the Austrians had made any demands that demands could lead to war and Serbs would be willing to resist- and asked all his ambassadors to communicate this to their hosts. The Belgrade police also refused to investigate any links between the murder and Serbs in Serbia until a request was made by the Austrians and then later announced that the chief suspect in the murder- a man called Ciganovic didn't exist (he was actually an agent in the Serbian secret service).

B On the Austrian ultamatum- points 1-3 focussed on the suppression of anti-Austrian Serbian newspapers, points 4, 6, 7 and 8 asked for the arrest of people directly involved in the assassination- including border guards who facilitated the conspirators movement across the frontier, point 9 focussed on Serbia stopping its officials abroad condemning Austria and point 10 demanded a report on the previous 9 points.

The really controversial points were 5- that the Serbian government collaborate with austrian efforts to suppress anti Austrian movements inside Serbia- and 6- that the accessories to the crime should be investigated by a joint Austrian Serb commission. The reason for both points is that Austria didn't trust Serbia to complete an investigation- for reasons above. Now the interesting thing about these demands is that they were far more limited than demands that the Serbs had made of the Ottoman government in 1912- when they demanded in Macedonia that reforms within the country should be carried out by foreigners as noone could trust the Turkish government to carry them out.

I wouldn't deny that the Austrian ultimatum was meant probably to instigate war- but it did also come a month after Franz Ferdinand died- and after the Serbs had already refused and obstructed investigations in Serbia by the Austrians. Basically speaking from reading Clark Austria's position doesn't seem unreasonable- Serbia's might not have been irrational (because they could claim support as you argue) but it does seem provocative.