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The New International, December 1943

Harry Young

The Struggle in Yugoslavia

What Is Happening in the Balkans?


From The New International, Vol. IX No. 11, December 1943, pp. 331–334.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


This article was written before the announcement that the Tito-Ribar government had been proclaimed in Yugoslavia by the leaders of the “Partisan” forces, thus consummating their break with the King Peter-Mikhailovich regime.

Despite the efforts of King Peter to bring the fighting factions together, there is civil war in Yugoslavia. There is civil war in Greece, where three rival factions are organizing guerrilla warfare against one another. There is civil war in Albania. As soon as the lid is lifted, there will be civil war in Rumania, in Hungary, in Bulgaria. All over Europe, in fact, the liberators, besides delivering nations from Nazi rule, are bound to liberate also the inner conflicts that were latent before the war started. – Anne O’Hare McCormick in the New York Times

Within the framework of the great imperialist war that embraces the world, the great international proletarian war for world socialism slowly but steadily proceeds to develop. It takes on many and complex forms, ranging from the elemental nationalist uprising in India last year to the advanced demonstrations of the Milan workers in July and August of this year.

In this article we shall describe, within the limits of available information, another manifestation of this growing revolutionary spirit and its effect, in particular, upon the approaching European revolution. Just as the movement in Yugoslavia is but the forerunner of similar happenings throughout the whole Balkan peninsula, so we can already foretell that similar struggles will spread through all of Europe, particularly in the more backward lands of central and northern Europe (Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Baltic states, etc.)

The complex character of these revolutionary movements is obvious. The problem of national independence, of a solution to the agrarian question, the relationship between the city workers and the peasant masses, the struggle against re-establishment of reactionary, pre-war regimes (military dictatorship in Greece, monarchy in Yugoslavia, etc.), relations with powerful neighbors (Russia), or other imperialists scheming to establish spheres of influence (England, America), the question of suppressed national minorities within the old boundaries (Czechoslovakia, Poland, Yugoslavia) – these are but the most fundamental and acute questions placed before revolutionists in the more backward areas of Europe.

It is not our intention to take up all these problems as they affect Yugoslavia, the Balkan nation we have in mind as the best contemporary illustration of the developing European revolution. We shall instead describe some of the basic characteristics of this country, as well as the contending forces that have brought it to the forefront. But first we must consider some elementary facts about Yugoslavia.

An Artificial Creation

The Kingdom of Yugoslavia (known in official language as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes) is an artificial creation of the Versailles Peace Conference. It was created by a tremendous expansion of the pre-war Kingdom of Serbia primarily as an imperialist counter-stroke against the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire, in precisely the same spirit as the equally artificial Czechoslovakia was created.

Yugoslavia had a population of 16,000,000 before the present war began, but in no sense of the word was the country unified or homogeneous. The Serbian ruling house – descendants of mediaeval bandit leaders – symbolized the corrupt class of ruling Serbian landlords, aristocrats and capitalists who lorded it over the numerous national minorities within the country. The dominant Serbs did not even constitute a majority of the 16,000,000 population. In northern Yugoslavia there are approximately 1,000,000 Slovenes; in northwestern Yugoslavia – the concentration area for most of the population – there are about 5,000,000 Croats (Croatia); and, in addition, there are 2,500,000 people of German, Hungarian, Albanian, Macedonian, Rumanian, Bulgarian, etc., nationality. It was this multi-national “state,” already cracked and deeply split by these centrifugal nationalistic forces that fell so easily into Hitler’s hands in 1941. In this respect, too, Yugoslavia resembled that other brain-child of the Versailles masterminds, Czechoslovakia.

The Kingdom was an incredibly poor and backward country. Split into many mountain plateaus and isolated valley areas by the criss-cross network of the Slovenian Alps, Dinaric and Balkan mountain ranges, and with communication further limited by the primitive transportation system, there was little possibility of breaking down barriers between the various national groups, particularly under the stern, inner-imperialist policy pursued by the assassinated King Alexander and his son and heir, the present King Peter. (We refer to the young gentleman now anxiously waiting at Cairo.) A rocky, stormy and high coastline (the Dalmatian coast), with few usable harbors, forced Yugoslovian trade and commercial life to depend on Danubian transportation (that is, dependency upon the other Balkan nations, Turkey and Russia). Belgrade, the principal city, is located on the Danube.

The entire Kingdom was the same size as the state of Oregon (100,000 square miles) and eighty-five per cent of its people lived on the land, either as small peasant proprietors (the largest group by far), or as semi-serfs or sharecroppers working for Serbian landlords. There was little manufacturing or industry. Croatia was the most advanced and industrialized area, with some steel and iron industry growing up around Belgrade. Economic life was generally stagnant and backward. The volume of trade with the outside world was small and confined to the Danubian river area. All in all, Yugoslavia was doomed to fall apart at the slightest pressure. That came in 1941.

The Nazi invasion not only destroyed the disjointed Kingdom, but was disastrous to the workers and peasants and their nationalist aspirations. As in all such cases, a complex “sharing of the loot” took place. The Axis powers and their jackal-satellites tore the land into shreds. Minute Slovenia (1,000,000 population) alone was divided among Germany, Hungary and Italy. The Nazi-dominated puppet state of Croatia was created. Italy took over the Dalmatian coast area; Bulgaria and Hungary moved into other sections, with the German occupation forces dominating the land as a whole. Rarely has a land been so thoroughly “thrown to the wolves”!

The Struggle for Power

Under such conditions, a confused and highly variable struggle for power was bound to develop. Petty bourgeois liberalism would like to describe the scene as a struggle between Nazi Germany, on the one hand, and the “people” of Yugoslavia (aided by the Allies), on the other hand. However, the interlaced factors of nationalism, class struggle and imperialist war are not so simple, in reality. It is worth our while to list some of the contending forces.

First, and most important at present, are the forces of imperialism. On one side, German imperialism and its bourgeois puppet allies in the Quisling states of Croatia, Hungary, Bulgaria, etc. The intention of this power is clear: to keep its hold over the Balkans in the interests of the German bourgeoisie. In the other imperialist camp we find, naturally, the Allies – Britain and America are primarily concerned. They wish to capture and dominate the anti-Nazi movement of the workers and peasants, open up a rear entrance, by way of Austria, to attack Germany, drive a deep wedge into the midst of Russia aspirations with respect to the Balkans, and also, by control of Greece, to further assure British domination of the Mediterranean.

The other contending imperialist power – Russia – has its special aspirations in Yugoslavia and the Balkans. Curiously enough, these designs are not exactly unknown to previous Russian history. In former years it was called Russian Pan-Slavism (that is, Czarist imperialism); nowadays it is referred to, by some so-called “Trotskyites,” as the bureaucratically executed but “progressive” extension of the “Workers’ Fatherland” into foreign territories! Of course, the possibility that the Allies and Russia may agree among themselves on how to “handle” the Balkans must certainly not be overlooked. But the above represents, nevertheless, the objectives of the various imperialists.

But within the borders of the old Yugoslavian state, while the rival candidates for imperialist mastery attempt to interject their dominion in a variety of ways, a savage and significant civil war has been raging for over a year. From the viewpoint of the European revolution, it is far more important than all the imperialist schemes taken together. This civil war involves the proletarian and peasant masses of Yugoslavia, regardless of their nationality or race. In this internal struggle there are two camps; although the delineations and character of one of them is far from clear.

The power of the army represented by General Mikhailovich and his Chetniks is similar to that represented by every national bourgeoisie and government in exile that seeks to reestablish its former rule. Mikhailovich, Minister of War for the exiled King Peter, wishes to resurrect the old Yugoslavian Kingdom, with its repression of the Croatian, Slovenian and other minorities. The accusations directed against him by his opponents (collaboration with the Nazis and Italians; terror against the opposition peasantry; program of full political reaction) are all undoubtedly true. The exiled government of King Peter is but the reactionary Quisling of America and Britain and certainly one of the darkest forces in the whole picture. Mikhailovich is the Balkan composite of Darlan and Badoglio. There is little reason to doubt the statement of Louis Adamic that he has virtually no support in Yugoslavia, except among the old officers’ clique, landlords and feudal reaction at the top. Whatever strength he does have is apparently confined to the southern (Serbian) sections of the country.

The Partisans’ Movement

On the other side – bitter opponents of the Chetniks – are the Partisans. And here we find ourselves dealing with a force that is extremely difficult to analyze and describe with any exactitude. The reason for this is clear. It is a broad social movement in process of formation; a movement within which many tendencies are struggling to such an extent that nothing definite and conclusive has yet been able to emerge. In this sense it is typical of what we may expect in all these “people’s movements” that are now, and will in the future, springing up all over Europe. Above all, we must guard against hasty judgments or sectarian statements that, for example, “it is only a Stalinist movement” or a “backward peasants’ movement,” etc.

Unforunately, there can be no doubt that the hands of the Balkan Stalinists have dug deep into this organization. They are probably the best organized faction. It is reported that Soviet planes fly regularly over Hungary on their way to the Partisans to drop supplies. We can rest assured that many a GPU organizer is included on the bill of lading. The Partisan leader, General Tito, is described by Time magazine as a fifty-three-year-old Croatian, ex-metal worker and Stalinist-trained politician who was active in the Spanish civil war. There can be no question that he is the prototype of those cynical Stalinist functionaries who have played such a treacherous role in so many revolutions.

Within the ranks of the Partisans (whose struggles against the Nazis and Chetniks are taking place in Dalmatia, Slovenia and Croatia) are found many diverse elements. All nationalities are represented, apparently, with the Croatians and Slovenians predominating. According to the American reporter, Daniel De Luce, who visited the Partisan camp, he came across political commissars, Catholic priests, business men from the local towns, with peasants making up the general mass. “There are no barriers of religion or politics. We embrace all patriots who love and fight for Yugoslavia,” an officer told him. Most significant fact of all appears to be the lack of relationship between the Partisans and proletarian forces in the large cities (with the exception of village and town artisans who are undoubtedly participants in the movement).

Does the Partisan movement have a definite political and social program? Here again the formative and loose character of this entire movement is emphasized. So far as we know from the information available, it does not. Or, in other words, the Stalinist faction in the movement has as yet been unable to impose its program upon the Partisans as a whole. This largely accounts for the guerrilla type of activity that it exclusively conducts. Tito has not yet clearly stated his attitude on the question of resurrecting the old Yugoslavian Kingdom – not even his opposition to the return of King Peter! (Obviously he must await the outcome of the Allied negotiations with Moscow before he can do so.) He has not spoken out for national independence for the various minority groups and their right to form independent states; he has said nothing about the agrarian problem; or the workers in the large cities.

Yet the strong radical pressure within the Partisan ranks, a pressure constantly being exerted against the Stalinist leaders, is apparent. Mikhailovich constantly complains of “the bloodthirstiness of the Red students and peasants” against the Serbian bourgeoisie. All reporters point to the growing bitterness between the opposing forces (as contrasted with the temporary and short-lived truce that prevailed toward the end of 1941), and Sonia Tomara writes in the New York Herald Tribune of October 18 that “... the feeling between the two factions resembles that which existed in Spain and Russia in the days of the civil wars in those countries.”

When Roosevelt handed over four bombers to Mikhailovich, Tito issued a statement declaring in an aggressive manner, “We consider this was a blunder which cannot be allowed to happen. The Yugoslav people have every right to expect that supplies of arms will in the future be handed over to the Yugoslav People’s Army of Liberation, which, indeed, alone is fighting the enemy.” Strong words from a man subject to pressure from radical workers, peasants and students. There will certainly be a further differentiation within the ranks of this popular-frontist movement, and that in the near future.

In the entire complex panorama of the Yugoslavian civil war, one historic thread maintains its former strength – that is, the struggle of the nationally-oppressed people for national independence, linked together with the class struggle of the workers and peasants as a whole against capitalist exploitation in the city industries and agrarian exploitation in the countryside. Even if Russia and the Allies agree on the disposition of the Balkan problem and even if Tito unites with Mikhailovich, the problems and demands of the worker-peasant masses will remain as before. Whether a Moscow agreement works out or not, the Allies may soon land in the Balkans and seek to dominate the whole situation by force of military arms. Through sheer weight they might succeed at first, but it would not last long. The irrepressible class and national conflicts would break through again at the first opportunity. Neither Stalinism nor Allied imperialism can solve the problem of these Balkan peoples.

The current and far from settled struggle on Yugoslavian soil is but one of many similar developments that Europe will experience. Anyone who expects full-fledged proletarian movements, guided by solidly organized revolutionary parties, is seeking miracles. To expect this is to ignore all that has happened in Europe for the past twenty-five years. Clearly, revolutionists in such a situation as exists in Yugoslavia must attach themselves organically to a movement like that of the Partisans; try to tie it up with movements of the city workers and constantly press for the most democratic and radical solutions of the various problems. They must be there so as to combat equally the Allied and/or Stalinist efforts to take control of such movements and subject them to their will. The question of Yugoslavia is not a matter of a small, isolated Balkan country. It is a matter of the European revolution: either the revolutionists will remain isolated from its slow, painful development, or they will participate in it and eventually make their ideas become its ideas.

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