Where the Sava River flows into the mighty Danube sits the city of Belgrade, capital of Serbia. Towering over the confluence of the two rivers is the Belgrade Fortress. One would be hard pressed to find a more strategic point in the long and troubled history of the Balkans. It as though geology and geography have conspired to create a place where the desire of empires and ethnicities are acted out in century upon century of armed conflict. It is believed that some 115 different battles have been fought over the fortress throughout recorded history.
Buried History – The Graveyard of Conquest
The conquerors of this strategic point include three of the most important empires in world history, the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman. They came, they saw, they conquered and they vanished. Holding this ground may well be just as hard as conquering it. Over the last one hundred years, the fortress has fallen under the sway of Serbia, Austria-Hungary, Yugoslavia, Germany, Yugoslavia and back again to Serbia. There are very few pieces of land in the whole of Europe that have such a contentious history. Control of this area, meant control over historic trade and migration routes. This was the reason that the Celts, Romans, Huns, Avars, Slavs, Bulgars, Byzantines, Serbs, Hungarians, Turks, Austrians and Germans occupied it with varying degrees of success over the past 2,300 years. It was also the reason that the Celts and Romans selected the area as a fortified encampment.
During the 6th century, the Byzantine Empire at its zenith under Justinian the Great, constructed a more permanent stone fortress. From that point forward, there were concerted attempts to create an impregnable fortification at the site. Each attempt tried to improve on the one before, but even stone and cement were never able to keep pace with technological innovations in siege warfare and artillery. Due to this building and rebuilding, much of the architectural history of the fortress has been subsumed. Today the fortress area is considered to be the most beautiful parkland in the city, but this beauty also hides a fascinating history. Beneath it are catacombs and tunnels that have scarcely been explored. They could hold tantalizing secrets about the past. Yet even the more recent past, relatively unknown in the popular historical consciousness, is worth remembering.
The Opening Shots of World War I
With such a conflicted past it is little surprise that the fortress and city it was built to protect saw fighting during the First World War. Of greater interest is the fact that the Belgrade fortress bore witness to the first shots of what became known as the war to end all wars. Exactly one month to the day from when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo by a Bosnian Serb, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. The telegram declaring war was officially received by Serbian officials during lunchtime at 12:30 pm on July 28, 1914. Less than twelve hours later, Austro-Hungarian artillery was prepared to fire the opening shots of the war. A few minutes past midnight, from across the Sava in Semlin (today Zemun in Serbia), the giant guns manufactured in the Krupp and Skoda factories of the empire unloaded a torrent of shellfire on Belgrade and its fortress. Then gliding across the slate grey waters of the Danube came river monitors bearing even more shot and shell.
These were the inaugural shots of what were to be millions more over the succeeding four years. There was panic in the city as civilians cowered in temporary shelters or descended into caves in the hills beyond the city. Windows were shattered all over the inner city as well as the residential districts. And this was just the beginning. In the coming weeks, the fortress was reduced to rubble as well as the industrial districts of the city. Food became scarce and sanitation soon degraded as water and sewer facilities were destroyed. Belgrade, capital of the Serbian nation was paying the price of a war that many felt the Serbs had brought upon themselves. Through it all stood the ruined remnants of the fortress, a crumbling witness to the excesses of modern warfare.
History Stuck On Repeat
Following the end of the conflict, it was proclaimed that World War I had been “the war to end all wars.” Meanwhile those ruins that pockmarked the Belgrade fortress offered a testament otherwise. The fortress would soon be rebuilt in time for the next war. And this was before anyone knew an even worse war was to follow. Why rebuild? Because it would surely happen again, for it is here where the Danube meets the Sava that history is stuck on repeat. Here in this place that has seen over a hundred battles, the future is totally predictable. What was to come might even be worse. It was. One wonders, is it really a conspiracy of geology and geography which has brought the Belgrade fortress such suffering. Perhaps it is, than again maybe it’s a conspiracy of man and his worst instincts. After all, the Danube and Sava rivers often change, but human nature never does.