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Jack Wilson

Books in Review

The Balkan Debacle

(April 1942)

From The New International, Vol. VIII No. 3, April 1942, pp. 93–94.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

From the Land of the Silent People
by Robert St. John
Doubleday, Doran & Co., New York. 353 pages, $3.00

This is a good book, well worth reading. The author makes no pretentious literary claims but his work will be read and remembered long after many of the more popular best sellers in the same field are on the junk heap, where they properly belong. For Robert St. John has written an absorbing and imperishable story, not so much of his own personal experiences in the Balkans, but rather of the fall of Yugoslavia and Greece before the Nazi juggernaut.

This “personal adventure” story contains political dynamite. It contains an overwhelming array of facts largely hidden or censored by the press and the military about Yugoslavia’s sudden turn-about in realpolitik, and its primitive resistance to the Nazi war machine. The contrast between what the newspapers published about Yugoslavia’s struggle and what happened is startling even at this late date. The tragedy of the Serb and Greek peoples, the terrifying Nazi ruthlessness and wantonness, exemplified in the destruction of Belgrade, the collapse of Greece, the true facts on Crete; these and other events and factors, all an important part of the pattern of World Imperialist War II, are described simply and effectively by a first-class reporter.

St. John, an American correspondent stationed in Belgrade, tells enough to open one’s eyes about the nature of the present world struggle, but a special foreword hints that even this book has pulled its punches to some extent. “If I were on somebody’s payroll in Berlin I could tell you things that would either make you hate the British or make you say I was on somebody’s payroll in Berlin. If I were on somebody’s payroll in London I could tell you things that either would make you hate the Germans, or make you say I was on somebody’s payroll in London,” St. John declares. “And it would all be truth, either way. Part of the truth, anyway,” he adds.

The reason for this unusually candid foreword – in a war correspondent – becomes clear in the reading of his book. The Nazi technique of propaganda, “Britain is ready to fight to the last drop of anybody else’s blood,” obtains a partial factual basis in St. John’s revelations on the Balkan situation.

British propagandists also find fertile ground for their accusations of Nazi terror. St. John’s attitude appears to be, “they’re both telling the truth about the other, the liars!”

A War of Deception

Quite a point is made by St. John on the way the British duped the Serbs into thinking that a couple hundred thousand British soldiers would help them resist a Nazi invasion. He describes in detail the not-so-clever technique of the British in planting this rumor about their troops. And about the total ignorance of the Serbian population either about the military or political situation, since a ruthless and complete censorship prevailed. The Serbs had only their traditional, fierce, personal courage and pride and an “ox-cart army” as St. John says, to cope with an enemy whose modernized war machine was completely unknown and unheard of to the Serbian masses. Nor did the people have a war aim. In the light of all the facts brought out by St. John, the present guerrilla fighting in Yugoslavia today becomes an amazing example of dauntless spirit and heroism, even more so than that of the Russian guerrillas. (How utterly tragic that such a magnificent resistance is subordinated to one of the imperialist camps, rather than in the struggle for the liberation of all mankind.)

After living through the horror of the devastation of Belgrade, an undefended city filled with Serbian workers and peasants (as usual, the rich folk got away), St. John made his way to Sarajevo, where, by the way, he was able to try to think a little about this war, and about which he expresses his own views.

“Maybe you can reconcile international politics and Christianity. But as I lay there in a stolen bed in the Europa Hotel in Sarajevo, which was soon to be obliterated by bombs on Easter Sunday, I couldn’t make sense out of it. I wondered where God was, anyway. I wondered how Christians on both sides – because there are Christians on both sides – reconciled these things.” The answer, of course, is that they don’t. Nor does the Church intend to. For that would be getting on “dangerous ground.”

St. John recalls his conversations with young Nazi officers, indicating again the fear the German people have of another Versailles, and the arguments of Englishmen in opposition.

“They were also fighting a holy crusade. Both sides called it a holy crusade, just like the last time. The Englishmen said they were fighting this time for the liberty of individuals, for peace in Europe, for freedom of the little nations, for democracy.”

“Then I remembered how another Englishman, James Hilton, had written a little book just a couple of years ago in which he said you can never fight a war to make the world safe for democracy, because all wars kill democracy, and you can’t fight a war to end all wars, because each war begets a new one. Only that book wasn’t as popular as Good-Bye, Mister Chips, because – well, because we were all about to fight another war for democracy and peace.”

Unfortunately, St. John stops here. He doesn’t look into the social and economic structure of the world today for a basic answer to his question of WHY?

Who Pays for the War?

Let us quote you one of the many descriptions of the war with which St. John packs this book:

No one agreed about how many people the German bombers killed in Patras, but they surely did a job. A Greek hospital ship with tremendous red crosses painted all over its sides got a direct hit. It was listing badly and before long would go to the bottom. Someone said it was the last hospital ship the Greeks had. The rest were already at the bottom, some of them still weighed down with the bodies of their wounded passengers who hadn’t a chance when the planes came over. The hospital ship in Patras harbor had been full of wounded too ... But the worse job the planes did was on hundreds of refugees ... they flocked down to the water front ... it was a well organized exodus ... They were going away in flat bottomed barges towed by a large ship ... They were ready to shove off when the planes came.

Of course it was a stupid mistake. They never should have tried to get away in the daylight. Some of them managed to hide between the blocks of concrete on the quay, but most of them just huddled down on the barges, burying their heads in the blankets and mattresses and tin kettles and baby cribs and all the other stuff they wanted so much to save. They tried to play ostrich, but bullets from a machine gun in an airplane can hit people just as well and kill them just as dead even if their heads are buried. That was what happened. The planes dropped some bombs and then they used machine guns.

The Soldiers Are Thinking

By now everyone is acquainted with the feelings of the Australian soldiers who were sacrificed in Greece and Crete. There is one slant on them, however, which St. John reveals which is illuminating.

The Anzacs lay around the decks those two days and two nights reading books they had stored away in their knapsacks. It was interesting to circle around and see what entertained them. Here and there a boy had a bible. Others, who had lived through more adventure in the last few weeks than most novelists had ever seen, were reading Sabatini adventure stories. But a lot of them had their noses in serious books. One spent all his time with Propaganda for War, by an American college professor. It was a book that a British censor had once confiscated from my luggage. Another was passing Undertones of War around among his friends. A lot of them were thinking and talking about the war and what it meant and what we’re really fighting for and what kind of a world we ought to try to create after it’s all over. That amazed us. Soldiers on the front line aren’t supposed to do much thinking. But we realized now that on both sides common ordinary soldiers were trying to think the thing out. And some of them were having their troubles reconciling this and that.

The book serves a good purpose because it helps dispel many illusions prevalent today about the war, the soldiers and the peoples who are bearing its burdens. Indirectly, it is a real indictment not merely against the press which distorts the news of the war, and the censors who contribute heavily to the distortion by their omissions, but also against the world system that has plunged mankind into the present holocaust.

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