Saturday, 26 August 2017

Under the hill,over the hill

"Look, you might think me very old-fashioned, but I always understood there were certain formalities to be gone through on these occasions. You should tell me your name and then boldly challenge me to come forth and defend my hoard: not try to sneak in like youve just done. So what is your name? Tristan? Oh, SIR Tristan! I do apologise: no offence intended. And my name? Well, men once called me Chrysophylax: Chrysophylax the Golden, whose wings beshadowed the sun. Rather poetic, dont you think? If a touch overblown. My real name, of course, I couldnt possibly pronounce in your language, so I wont even try. And while were on the subject, Sir Tristram: that sword youre swinging about; does it have a name too? No? not even something crude and vulgar, like Skullsplitter? Sad. In my younger days, the warriors who came to challenge me all had swords with names; and some were supposed to have ancient lineage, made by the dwarves or whatever, or were even said to be magical. Absolute tosh, of course; but still quite romantic. Ah well; times change.
   "Now, if we want to do this properly, you should challenge me to fight. Denounce me as a thief and murderer, and tell me youre going to kill me and take away my ill-gotten gains. But I must point out that, although the accusation is by and large true, I havent actually done any plundering and slaughtering for a great many years. It was all a very long time ago; and in any event, I dont see why it gives you any right to take my treasure for yourself. Or you could be more up-to-date, and talk about the serious deflationary effects of keeping all this gold locked away out of circulation, and how international liquidity would be greatly improved by releasing it onto world markets .. What? Youve never even heard of economics, or monetary theory? No, clearly not. Forget about it; its my fault. I just presumed things out there must be more advanced than they actually are. Heigh-ho.
   "Moving on from there: may I ask, Sir Tristan, why you decided to come? Because dragon-fighting is a game for young warriors, or at least it was. Teenage heroes: many of whom, frankly, were just kids with more guts than sense. Dont say theyre letting the oldies in on it nowadays: that would NOT be a great idea! Im no expert in humans, I admit; but its obvious youre not exactly in the first flush of youth. Take the way you swung that sword at me when you came in; quite an effort, wasnt it? I can tell youre not as fast as you once were. Shoulders getting stiff, are they? Bit of the old back trouble? Knees start to hurt if you stay en garde too long? And maybe the mailcoat feels rather tight around the waist, but getting a bigger one would be too much of an admission? So what made you come here, and try to get your hands on my treasure? Do you need the money? Or are you trying to recapture the glories of your youth: prove to yourself you can still do it? Or perhaps a bit of both? Thats my suspicion anyway.Now dont get offended; I quite understand; because Im getting old too. Im not sure quite how old, but it must be hundreds of your years, if not thousands. But the notion that dragons are immortal is mythical. We age, just like everyone else, though it takes much longer. Look at me: I havent been outside this cave for I dont know how long. Im amazed anyone even remembered I was here. And these wings, which once beshadowed the sun; I dont know whether theyd fly at all now. Not so much golden as rusty these days! Hah!
   "So there you have it: were both of us past our best, arent we? All washed up. Headed for the scrap-heap. Here we both are, together in my lair under the hill, but at the same time were over the hill! Thats a nice ironic little paradox for you, isnt it?
   "Im not going to fight you, Sir Tristan. Maybe Id beat you, maybe youd beat me; but either way, itd be an embarrassment. Two old cronks bashing away at each other till they both run out of breath or one of them drops dead with a heart attack! Not good! So Ive got a better suggestion for you.This treasure, now. It took a lot of looting, burning and general rapine to accumulate it all, and I wont pretend I didnt enjoy doing it: in fact it was tremendously enjoyable. But, as I told you, that was all over long ago, and nowadays I dont seem to do anything except lie here and count it. And I can tell you for a fact, hunting down and collecting something is much more fun than spending years just owning it: its not the same thing at all. Sometimes I do wonder why I bother to keep it all, and do you know, I really cant think of an answer? When you look back on life, you realise that you set yourself various goals, and some of them you achieved, only perhaps they werent quite as exciting as you expected, and the rest you realise youll never achieve now. So what Im proposing to you is this: instead of fighting for my gold, why dont you just take as much of it as you can carry, and go home? You can tell people youve killed me, for all I care. Theyll probably believe you, and I doubt very much whether anyone will actually come up here to check. If you want, you could make the story more exciting by saying I put a dying curse on the treasure, or something like that. And who knows, when youre really old, you might come to believe yourself that you once actually killed a dragon. And if everyone, including you, believes it happened, then its just as good as if it really did, isnt it?
   "So go ahead; take what you want: I won't stop you".


Some time later, the dragon awoke from a doze and thought to himself, Really, that all got pretty tedious, didnt it? I sometimes wonder what the worlds coming to, when I have to explain the most obvious things, practically spell them out word for word, not just to children but even to adults. I think that as I get older, I dont get more patient and tolerant, but less! But then he thought, No, its not fair to blame poor old Tristan; its not really his fault he was so ignorant: its just that no-one ever bothered to teach him anything.
   In any case, he may have been a bit over the hill, but he still tasted quite nice!

Monday, 14 August 2017

The Creation of Yugoslavia

"Yugoslavia" means the "land of the South Slavs". The Slavs were a people speaking versions of the language-group known as Slavic, who probably originated somewhere around Poland; some of whom migrated southwards into the Balkans in the 7th century to be the ancestors of the Serbs, Croats and others. A Serb kingdom had formed in the 13th century, only to be crushed by the Turks at the battle of Kossovo in 1389.

My old Bartholomew atlas, published around 1880, depicts a situation in the Balkans very different from today. In the 16th century the entire region, including most of Hungary, had formed part of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, but by the late 19th century the Turkish tide had receded. Several new states had appeared: the Kingdoms of Greece, Bulgaria, Romania and Montenegro, with frontiers settled at the 1878 Congress of Berlin; and looming over them the Empires of Russia and Austria.
   Since 1867 the Austrian Empire had been divided into two different administrations, with Franz Josef being simultaneously Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. Most of Croatia formed part of Hungary, but Slovenia and the Dalmatian coast were part of Austria. Although the Serbs and Croats spoke a common language, divisions between them were deep, for the Croats were Catholic and used the Roman alphabet, whereas the Serbs were Greek Orthodox and used the Greek script. Separate from both was Bosnia, which had a large Moslem population: in 1878 it formed a separate territory under Austrian supervision. Meanwhile the Ottoman Empire still included Albania, Macedonia, Kossovo and all the northern coast of the Aegean.
   Peace prevailed in the Balkans for a generation, only to be threatened, though not broken, in 1908, when the Austrians took advantage of a period of Russian weakness to annex Bosnia outright. This alarmed and disgusted the Serbs. Henceforth Austria and Serbia were enemies: the Serbs now looked to Russia for protection against any Austrian aggression, and the Austrians for their part suspected the Serbs of stirring up subversion within the Empire. The Russians for their part were determined not to be diplomatically humiliated by Austria in the future.
   In 1912 all the Balkan states joined together in a war against the Turks, and drove them back to the very gates of Constantinople, but immediately afterwards the other states turned against Bulgaria, which had made the most gains. The result was a new set of frontiers, with Albania as a new state, Macedonia and Kossovo going to Serbia and most of the north Aegean coast to Greece; but the other legacy was high casualties, great civilian suffering and many deep, underlying hatreds.

Everyone knows how in 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian Empire, was assassinated in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, by a group of young terrorists of Serbian race, and how the Austrian government (not without some justification) suspected involvement of the Serbian state in the murder. The Austrians, encouraged by Germany, decided to use this as an opportunity to destroy Serbia, and, after the Serbs had refused to accept a very tough ultimatum, declared war. But, unlike in 1908, the Russians felt they had to take a strong line, and mobilised their armies in Serbia's suport; and then Germany, alarmed by this, also mobilised, declared war on Russia and on Russia's principal ally, France. By these moves a quarrel in the Balkans led to the horrors of the First World War.

Serbia's losses in the war were exceptionally heavy for such a small country. Since 1911, over 1.2 million of her people had died, 28% of the population, two thirds of them being civilians. In addition, she now had to cope with 72,000 disabled veterans and 180,000 war widows. She would expect some recompence.

President Wilson's "14 Points" for a future peace settlement, issued in January 1918, made only brief and somewhat vague reference to the Balkans. Point 10 said that "The peoples of Austria-Hungary should be given the freest opportunity of autonomus development", and Point 11 that "Serbia should be accorded free and secure access to the sea". There was also Point 9, which promised "Readjustment of the frontiers of Italy to conform to clearly recognizable lines of nationality". The ambiguities were to lead to trouble.
   In the autumn of 1918 the Austrian Empire disintegrated, and South Slav troops from her army took control of surrounding territories, including Bosnia, Herzegovina, Montenegro and the Dalmatian coast. But what sort of a government should emerge from this? Should it be a centralised state or a loose federation? Yugoslavia, the "Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes", which was envisaged, would actually include substantial minorities of ethnic Germans, Hungarians and Albanians, as well as Bosnian Moslems and considerable numbers of Jews. Furthermore, the Croat leader, Trumbic, despised the Serbs as "half-civilized", and in Montenegro there was civil war, involving groups loyal to the prewar royal family.
   The strongest opposition to a Yugoslav state came from Italy. The Italians had been persuaded to enter the war by the 1915 Treaty of London, which promised them not only the Austrian port of Trieste at the head of the Adriatic, but also some of the Dalmatian coastline and a "protectorate" over Albania. They saw the Slovenes and Croats as enemies who had fought for Austria, and as the war ended, Italian troops entered these territories as conquerors, and Italian agents sought to stir up racial and social disputes. But President Wilson announced that he was not bound by the Treaty of London, and Britain and France,for different reasons, were sympathetic with the creation of a Yugoslav state. The peace negotiations at Versailles saw endless disputes about control of ports on the Dalmatian coast, which culminated in Orlando, the Italian Prime Minister, walking out of the talks in April 1919.
   The future shape of the Balkans was settled in September 1919 by the Treaty of St. Germain with Austria and the Treaty of Trianon with Hungary. Both were reduced to their respective German-speaking and Magyar heartlands, as seen on present-day maps, and treated as defeated enemy powers. New countries emerged: Czechoslovakia in the north and Yugoslavia in the south, and Transylvania was awarded to Romania. Substantial racial minorities found themselves unwillingly placed under new rulers, not least in the new Yugoslavia. The main threat to the infant state came initially from Italy, which claimed the port of Fiume (now called Rijeka). In 1919 Fiume was occupied by a scratch force commanded by the posturing Italian romantic poet and novelist Gabriele d'Annunzio. He withdrew after the Treaty of Rapallo in 1920 awarded Istria and Zadar to Italy, and Fiume was later incorporated into Italy by Mussolini.

The interwar period was far from peaceful for Yugoslavia.  King Alexander of Serbia became monarch of the new state, to the disgust of many Croats. They voted in large numbers for the People's Peasant Party, whose leader, Sjepan Radic, was then shot and fatally wounded in the Parliament building in Belgrade in 1928. The riots which followed the murder were suppressed, and next year King Alexander abolished the constitution and proclaimed a royal dictatorship. In 1935 a Croat Fascist movement, the Ustase, led by Ante Pavelic, asassinated the King in a visit to Marseilles. Yugoslavia was thus always simmering on the edge of violence, and one only has to read contemporary travellers' accounts, such as Rebecca West's "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon" to learn how much Serbs and Croats hated and mistrusted each other. All this was to boil over in scenes of hideous brutality in the Second World War.

(To be continued in a later post)

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Sir Lewis Namier on the popularity of modern dictators

The great historian Sir Lewis Namier (1888-1960) wrote an essayin 1947 entitled "The First Mountebank Dictator" on the subject of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, the nephew of the great Napoleon, who was unexpectedly elected President of the French Republic in 1848, then four years later staged a coup and declared himself Emperor of France. He was finally overthrown after being defeated in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.
   Louis-Napoleon has always been a mystery to historians: he was first elected by an overwhelming majority of the votes, despite his complete lack of previous achievements; he governed by direct appeal to the masses (who were small farmers in the countryside rather than city workers) and was generally despised by the intellectual classes; and his policies were a mixture of authoritarian control from the centre, some measures of social reform, grandiose public building projects, an interventionist foreign policy in Europe (such as his participation in the Crimean War and his crucial role in the unification of Italy) and imperialism throughout the rest of the world. None of his writings show any sign of coherent political thought.
   Namier discusses Louis-Napoleon's popular appeal, which he styles "Caesarian democracy", characterised by:-

    "Direct appeal to the masses; demagogical slogans; disregard of legality in spite of a professed guardianship of law and order; contempt of political classes and the parliamentary system, of the educated classes and their values; blandishments and vague, contradictory promises for all and sundry; militarism; blatant displays and shady corruption".

   Namier was in origin a Central European Jew, and at the time of his writing this essay what particularly interested him was to draw a comparison between Louis-Napoleon and Hitler. Of the early careers of the two future leaders, which were marked by "miserable failures", he writes:-

   "Both men were treated with humane and neglectful forbearance .... Not even at a later stage did the political leaders realise the full gravity of the situation - thinking in terms of their own and not in those of the masses, they could not descry either in Louis-Napoleon or Hitler a possible ruler or dictator".

   What struck me when reading this essay was how much of this could be applied to certain leaders of the present day - mentioning no names!