Georgi Dimitrov

The European War and the Labour Movement in the Balkans

Source: The Communist International, 1924, No. 5 (New Series), pp. 93-103
Transcription/HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2009). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

1. The Balkan War

IN the Balkans the European war was preceded by two other Balkan wars—(1) Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece against Turkey; (2) Serbia, Greece and Roumania—against Bulgaria. On the initiative and under the protection of Czarist Russia, which at that time played the role of the direct executor of the annexationist policy of the Entente with regard to the Balkan Peninsula, the so-called Balkan Union was formed in 1912. It consisted of Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece. This purely military union, based on a special agreement between three Balkan States concerning the partition of the then Turkish provinces in the Balkans, and especially of Macedonia was directed, of course, against Turkey. At that time Turkey was literally in the hands of German imperialism which extended its influence and built up its basis in Asia Minor at the expense of Great Britain and France, thereby imperilling the interests of the latter in the Near East.

It was in the interests of the Entente to weaken Turkey and to use the Balkan States as a barrier against German and Austro-Hungaria penetration into the Balkans and still further into Asia Minor. This was essential from the viewpoint of preparation for the impending European war. The Entente very cleverly exploited the annexationist aspirations of the dynasties and bourgeois classes of Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece in respect of Balkan territories which were then under Turkish domination—Macedonia, Thrace and the territory of Adrianople, so as to entangle the Balkan States in a war against Turkey.

The masses in Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece were told by the ruling classes that this war was inevitable for the liberation of the populations of Macedonia, Thrace and of the territory of Adrianople, which had been groaning for centuries under the yoke of Turkey, and for the national class population of Bulgaria, Serbia and Greek peoples. One must admit that a considerable section even of the working class population of Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece allowed itself to be deceived. Influenced by strong nationalist feelings, they became imbued with the idea that the Balkan Union was being established for the liberation of their “enslaved brothers,” and for the national unification of the scattered peoples. Therefore, they greeted enthusiastically the declaration of the first Balkan war in September, 1912. The oppressed population of Macedonia, Thrace and the Adrianople region, which was under the yoke of Turkish landowners, also believed, and even more fervently than the other nationalities, that the time had come at last for their liberation and for the establishment of their national and political independence.

This circumstance played a very important part in the first Balkan war. The Turkish army was defeated in a few rapid encounters and compelled to retreat towards Chadalkja, the vicinity of the gates of Constantinople. After this catastrophic defeat, Turkey proposed to make peace, ceding Macedonia, Thrace and the district of Adrianople.

However, the great victory of the Allies (Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece) became the signal for the disintegration of the predatory “Balkan Union.” The Allies who had defeated Turkey and had occupied the Balkan provinces, immediately quarrelled among themselves over the annexed territories which had not been divided, and especially Macedonia. This conflict developed into the second Balkan war—between Bulgaria on the one side, and Serbia and Greece on the other side. Roumania took advantage of this new situation and intervened in the war against Bulgaria, in order to add the Bulgarian section to the Rumanian section of the Dobrudja. Without a single encounter, the Rumanian army marched unmolested to the very walls of Sofia—the capital of Bulgaria. The Entente, and mainly Czarist Russia, took the part of Serbia, Greece and Rumania against Bulgaria, thereby securing for themselves the domination over the Balkans, so necessary to them in the event of the pending European war.

This second Balkan war ended for Bulgaria in a crushing defeat. With the exception of a small part of Macedonia, which remained under Bulgarian rule, that country was divided between Serbia and Greece. A considerable section of Thrace was seized by Greece, while Rumania annexed the Bulgarian Dobrudja.

Instead of the much vaunted liberation of the oppressed nationalities and of national unification of the divided peoples, the Balkan wars resulted in a still greater national separatism, and in a more cruel national slavery than before. The national contradictions, which existed before these wars, became more acute and more complicated. The chasm between Bulgaria and Turkey on the one hand, and Serbia, Greece and Rumania on the other hand was widened, and the antagonism between these countries reached unprecedented proportions. When Serbia, Greece and Rumania became the tools of the Entente, Bulgaria and Turkey were already the blind tools at the mercy of German imperialism. In this way the Balkan States were allotted the role of vassals of these two imperialist groups in the coming European war.

2. The Balkans in the European War

Exactly twelve months after the end of the second Balkan war, the European war broke out in July, 1914. The deep wounds inflicted by the two Balkan wars had not had time to heal, and the consequences of the terrible devastation wrought by these wars had not yet been liquidated when the Balkan peoples were confronted with the terrible fate of being drawn into the general European war. Both belligerent imperialist groups did their utmost—from promises of territorial aggrandisement to the bribery of dynasties and statesmen, as well as of entire parties and of the Press—to win the support of the Balkan States, in order to be able to use the Balkans as a base for the European war.

However, the situation created by the Balkan wars in the Balkans, had already pre-ordained the participation of the Balkan States in the war either on the side of the Entente, or on the side of the Central European Powers, so that it depended entirely on the development of the great European war when these States would become active participators in it.

Serbia was under the direct influence of Czarist Russia and France, and was bound to become the first victim of the sanguinary conflict between the two imperialist groups. Although the other Balkan States had proclaimed their neutrality when war broke out between Serbia and Austro-Hungary, they only waited for their opportunity (the command of their patrons) to plunge their peoples into the war, and place their territories at the disposal of the Great Powers.

Bulgaria proclaimed a so-called “armed neutrality.” But it was no secret to anyone that this “neutrality” was a benevolent neutrality only as far as the Central Powers were concerned. War material, submarines and military instructors from Germany and Austro-Hungary were sent through Bulgarian territory to Turkey, and it was not very long before Bulgaria openly joined the Central Powers. This happened in the second half of 1915, when Bulgaria attacked the rear of the Serbian army, which had already been fighting against Austro-Hungary for the past twelve months. For the purpose of opposing the victorious march of the Bulgarian army through Serbia and Macedonia, and preventing it from joining the Austro-Hungarian army, the Entente brought Rumania into the fray. The stubborn resistance of Greece to being drawn into the war on the side of the Entente, led to its occupation on the part of the Entente armies and to its transformation into a base for the military actions of the Entente in the Balkan Peninsula.

Thus, the Balkans became one of the most important and most sanguinary fronts in the whole European war.

In addition to the war slogans, issued by both belligerent imperialist groups, slogans intended to deceive their peoples and to induce them to suffer the horrors of war to the bitter end, the Balkan Governments also made use of their old nationalist catchwords to explain and justify their intervention in the war. They said: Bulgaria had to fight for its national unification and for the liberation of Macedonia. Serbia had to bring about the national unification of all Serbs, Croats and Slovenes and had to make certain of all its annexations during the Balkan wars; Rumania was obliged to fight for its national unification, and Turkey had to shake off the yoke of Entente imperialism.

And although the conclusion of the European war in the Balkans was begun because of the disorganisation of the Bulgarian army, and its compulsory retreat from the Salonica front in September, 1918, the war in this part of the world went on a long time after its nominal conclusion, in the form of a war between Greece and Turkey, which ended in the defeat of Greece and its final expulsion from those territories of Asia Minor which it had occupied.

3. The Sacrifices and Devastations caused by War in the Balkans

The Balkan peoples were the victims of terrible devastations during these wars, and made comparatively the greatest sacrifices. Both the victorious and vanquished were quite exhausted at the close of hostilities.

The following data, which are far from complete, will give an approximate idea of the terrible human and material losses caused by the wars in the Balkans.

In the Balkan wars, the Serbian losses amounted to 36,000 killed, 60,000 wounded, 45,000 invalids and one milliard dinars of war expenditure. Bulgaria had 55,000 killed, 105,000 wounded, 40,000 invalids and 2,000,000,000 levas war expenditure. Turkey had 150,000 killed, 80,000 massacred, 450,000 died of epidemics, and 1,075,000,000 French francs war expenditure. In Greece the total killed in battle and died from disease was 30,000 and 20,000 were invalided. Moreover, the Serbian army killed during the Balkan wars about 100,000 Albanians and burnt down their villages. A large section of Macedonia and Thrace was laid waste by fire.

Apart from the losses and victims which cannot be exactly ascertained, the toll of the two Balkan wars consisted of 415,000 lives lost both in battle and from various other causes, and 4,000,000,000 (in round figures) francs war expenditure.

In this respect, the European war presents a much more terrible picture. Serbia was for a long time the only theatre of military operations, and was under military occupation for three years. The losses inflicted on the country during this period of terrible devastation beggar description. In Serbia, with a population of 4,000,000 the number of those killed and who died from various diseases was 800,000, whilst 1,000,000 were wounded and 220,000 crippled. Of the 150,000 men and women who were driven into Austria, 70,000 died. Scores of thousands of Serbs were despatched to Bulgaria and most of them died. In that part of Serbia which was occupied by Bulgaria, 20,000 people were killed and 40 villages were burnt down by the occupation authorities. Serbia's war expenditure in the European war amounted to 15 milliard dinars.

In the European war, the Bulgarian losses were 150,000 killed, 300,000 wounded, and 160,000 invalids. Its war expenditure amounted to 7,000,000,000 levas.

Rumanian losses were 80,000 killed, many thousands died of epidemics. Her expenditure amounted to 12,000,000,000 lei.

Turkey had 350,000 killed, and 900,000 died of epidemics. Moreover, 710,000 of the peaceful population of Turkey were massacred. Its war expenditure amounted to 1,020,000 French francs, and 220,000,000 Turkish lire.

In the war between Turkey and Greece, the former had 180,000 killed and 150,000 died of epidemics, and the latter's losses included 60,000 killed and 40,000 who died from disease and almost 1,000,000 made homeless refugees.

On the whole, in the Balkan States during the European wars (killed, died of disease and massacres), there were roughly 3,500,000 human victims. The war expenditure amounted to 50 milliards French francs.

After the European war Yugo-Slavia (the former Serbia) was saddled with a national debt of 40 milliard dinars—1,700 dinars per inhabitant. Rumania has a debt of 25,000,000,000 gold lei, while the national debt of Bulgaria amounts to over 100 milliard levas—22,273 levas per inhabitant.

4. The Situation in the Balkans after the European War

It is unnecessary to point out that the European war did not result in the national emancipation and unification of the Balkan peoples in any greater degree than the former Balkan wars had done. On the contrary national separatism and national slavery increased. Yugo-Slavia is a typical example of national separatism and national mixtures in the Balkans. The total population of this Balkan State amounts to 12,055,638. Its national composition is as follows: Serbs, 1,023,588 (18.5 per cent.); Yugo-Slavs, Moslems, 759,656 (6.3 per cent.); Macedonians, Bulgarians, 630,000 (5.3 per cent.); Germans, 512,207 (4.3 per cent.); Hungarians, 472,079 (3.9 per cent.); Albanians, 483,871 (4 per cent.); Rumanians, 183,871 (1.6 per cent.); Turks, 143,453 (1.2 per cent.); Italians, 11,630 (0.1 per cent.); other Slavs, 198,857 (1.6 per cent.); and Jews, Gipsies and others, 42,756 (0.3 per cent.). The Serbian bourgeoisie, which represents a nation forming only one-third of the total population of Yugo-Slavia, exercises a hegemony over the remaining two-thirds of the population, and carries on a violent policy for their denationalisation. The already complicated problem in the Balkans has now become more complicated than in any other part of the world. The new changes introduced into the map of the Balkan Peninsula by the various peace treaties, have created artificial States, such as Yugo-Slavia, and Rumania, and quite impossible frontiers for the Balkan States. Within the framework of these States, there is a population of many millions (Macedonians, Croats, Slovenes, Dobrudjians, Bessarabians, Transylvanians, etc., etc.), fighting for national independence. Macedonia has been divided up amongst three states—Yugo-Slavia, Greece and Bulgaria; Thrace—between Greece and Turkey. The Dobrudja has remained under the domination of Rumanian landowners. The territories separated from the former Austro-Hungarian monarchy—Croatia, Slovenia, Voyevodina (a small part of Croatia), Dalmatia, Bosnia, Hertzegovina—are under the hegemony of the Serbian Dynasty and bourgeoisie. The former Austro-Hungarian territories—Transylvania and Bukovina—came under the sway of Rumanian landowners and capitalists, who also seized Bessarabia. Albania is the subject of the annexationist aspirations of both Yugo-Slavia and Greece.

The old rivalry between German and Entente imperialism in the Balkans has been put an end to by the crushing defeat inflicted on the Central Powers during the European war. But instead of it, the Balkans have been converted, for all intents and purposes, into a colony of Entente imperialism and into a bulwark of imperialist counter-revolution in which French capitalism plays the first fiddle.

More than ever before, the Balkans have become a volcano which can become at any moment the source of terrible bloodshed, and the signal for the next imperialist war, into which imperialism is driving mankind.

5. War against War

Notwithstanding nationalist enthusiasm, which seized upon a considerable section of workers at the outbreak of the Balkan war, the Social-Democratic Party in the Balkans (now the Communist Party), and especially in Bulgaria and Serbia, opposed together with the Balkan Socialist (now Communist Federation, this “war of liberation” in a most energetic matter. In their Press and by means of special manifestoes, as well as from platforms both inside and outside Parliament, they explained to the masses the true nature of the predatory “Balkan Union,” which is a product of the annexationist policy of the bourgeois classes and of monarchism in Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece, as well as European imperialism. They warned the people that the Balkan war cannot and will not give national emancipation and unity to the Balkan peoples, because it was a war of conquest carried on by the Bulgarian-Serbian and Greek Alliance. Greece did not declare war on Turkey, with a view to liberating Macedonia and the other territories under a nationalist yoke, but for the purpose of conquering and dividing them among themselves with the result that after the victory over Turkey, they would quarrel amongst each other in the scramble for the booty. In opposition to the “Balkan Union” created by the ruling sections of society for the purpose of carrying on an annexationist wary they issued the slogan of peace between the Balkan peoples and the formation of a Federated Balkan Republic, within which the oppressed and ruined Balkan peoples would be able to achieve their national emancipation and unity, and with the aid of which they could resist the annexationist offensive of the great European imperialist powers whose object was to make the Balkan Peninsula a colony of their own. Although they were unable to prevent the war, they voted against war credits and insisted on its early conclusion, while the “broad Socialists” (Menshevik) of Bulgaria and their colleagues in Greece placed themselves entirely at the disposal of the bourgeoisie and its policy.

Because of their determined opposition to the war, the revolutionary Social Democratic Parties in Serbia were declared to be traitors to their countries and were subjected to relentless persecution. The entire Central Committee of the Bulgarian Party was tried for publishing the anti-war manifesto.

But the trend of events during the war and their results showed that the attitude they had adopted had been correct, and had disillusioned the masses who had been carried away by national enthusiasm. At the close of the Balkan wars, these masses began to rally very rapidly to their banner.

When the European war was declared and begun by the Austro-Hungarian attack on Serbia, the Serbian Party, represented by two of its members in parliament, had the courage to make a protest against the war, and to refuse to vote war credits, in spite of the united forces of the bourgeoisie. In contradistinction to the bourgeoisie, which declared that this war was a defensive war and directed against the attack by Austro-Hungary, the Serbian Party exposed the fact that Serbia was drawn into the imperialist war as a vassal of the Entente, and that the blood of the Serbian people was being shed in both the interests of the reigning bourgeois clique and of monarchism, and for the aims of the Entente imperialists. During the trying three years’ period of military devastation to which Serbia was subjected, the Serbian Social-Democratic Party did not swerve for a moment from the right path and remained true to itself, to revolutionary Socialism and to the supreme vital interests of the workers and of the peasantry.

Contrary to the “broad Socialists,” who, together with the pro-Entente opposition parties, were favouring Bulgaria’s intervention in the war on the side of the Entente, the Bulgarian Social Democratic Party (the Narrow Socialists) carried on for a whole twelve months a most energetic fight both in and outside parliament against the participation of the Bulgarian people in the imperialist war, whether it be on the side of the Entente or on the side of the Central Powers. It never ceased to expose and to explain to the masses that both the “armed neutrality” of the Radoslavov Government and the Czar Ferdinand, was a blind tool of German imperialism; his “armed neutrality” was merely a cloak for the efforts which were made to draw Bulgaria into the war on the side of Germany and Austro-Hungary. The Party was equally energetic in denouncing the pro-Entente opposition bloc, which did its utmost to throw Bulgaria into the arms of the Entente. By exposing the imperialist character of the European war at demonstrations and meetings organised by it, as well as in the Press, the Bulgarian Party brought into being a big anti-war feeling throughout the country, and when in igr5 the Radoslavov Government declared for the mobilisation, the workers and peasants were not only without any illusions about the true character of the European war, but devoid of enthusiasm such as had prevailed at the outbreak of the Balkan war: in some districts open resistance was made to mobilisation and participation in the war.

In spite of the fierce persecution of the Party, it fought together with the trade unions against the war from its beginning to its conclusion. In parliament it voted against war credits, in the country it carried on an active campaign for the speedy termination of the war, while on the various fronts it formed its own nuclei for propaganda in the army against war, and for the organisation of armed resistance to its continuance. For this purpose the Party published a number of illegal pamphlets and leaflets, and circulated them in the army just at the time when the “broad Socialists” leaders, together with the representatives of other bourgeois parties, toured the fronts agitating among the soldiers for the continuation of the war to the bitter end. After the Russian October Revolution, which ended in victory for the proletariat and peasantry, the Party carried on its anti-war campaign with still greater energy. As a result of this prolonged and energetic campaign, a rebellion broke out in the Bulgarian army in September, 1918. This rebellion played a large role in the termination of the imperialist war.

In its determined fight against the imperialist war, the Communist Party and the Labour movement in Bulgaria made many great sacrifices. The prisons were filled to overflowing with active members and supporters of the Party. Two of the members of the Central Committee of the Party were condemned—one to three, and the other to five years’ solitary confinement for anti-war propaganda. Thousands of sympathisers of the Party in the army were subjected to cruel persecution and ill-treatment, and scores of them were shot.

In Rumania, Greece and Turkey, revolutionary Socialists and workers also made great sacrifices and fought (although less energetically) against the war.

We are justified in saying that contrary to Germany, France, Great Britain and other countries where the reformist leaders succeeded in drawing the Labour movement into the imperialist war, the Labour movement in the Balkans was from beginning to end a determined opponent to it.

And now, ten years after the outbreak of the imperialist war, when imperialism is driving the world into new and more terrible wars, the revolutionary workers and peasants of the Balkans, who are under the leadership of Communist Parties, and who have profited by the sanguinary lessons of the two last Balkan wars, and especially by the lessons of the European war, understand full well that the only means for the prevention of a new imperialist war, is the class war of the workers and peasants against the bourgeoisie and imperialism, for the overthrow of the bourgeois regime and the establishment of a workers’ and peasants’ government, for the establishment of proletarian dictatorship in the Balkans as well as on an international scale.