The Other Side Of An Invisible Barrier – Conversations In Belgrade: Rebellion, Recklessness & A Refugee (Travels In Eastern Europe #34)

The memories of Belgrade that remain with me have nothing to do with the places I visited in the Serbian capital. This is not because the city was unmemorable. Such sites as the confluence of the Sava with the Danube River, the tomb of Yugoslav strongman Josip Broz Tito, Kalmegdan Fortress and St. Sava’s Cathedral were all worth seeing. It was just that the people I met were that much more memorable. Some of them were Serbs, several were not. Belgrade for me became a collection of fascinating personal interactions that I have carried with me ever since that visit.

My personal interactions with Serbs began at a grocery store just down the street from my accommodation. While I was picking up some provisions for the coming days, I noticed that a man stocking the shelves was wearing a Green Bay Packers shirt. I asked him if he spoke English. He replied in the affirmative. This began a conversation about his love of American football, specifically the Packers. He discussed at length the Packers’ past season. Our meeting went on for some time as he helped me find some groceries. I knew American football had been gaining in popularity around the world and Serbia has a reputation as a sports mad place, but a fanatical fan of the National Football League in Belgrade was a surprise. The reach of American culture, including sports, is hard to fathom until it confronts you in the dairy section of a Serbian grocery shop.

The War At Home – Seething With Resistance
My next extended interaction with a Serb came at Kalmegdan Fortress. A gentleman who looked to be in his thirties was working at the ticket selling counter. His English was impeccable. We started out discussing modern history, which brought us to the subject of Serbia’s relatively recent wars. I asked his opinion on the breakup of Yugoslavia. He began to speak with great passion. Serbia had been misunderstood. The Serbs were trying to save the South Slavic peoples from much worse. They had been wrongly cast as the aggressor. What had happened to Serbia was nothing short of a tragedy. It was a great nation that was misunderstood and deserved better. I sensed a fervent streak of unforgiving nationalistic sentiment. Until I was shocked by what he had to say about Slobodan Milosevic, the leader of Serbia during the Yugoslav Wars, who was eventually put on trial for war crimes. I expected a full throated defense of this demagogic nationalist.

Instead when I asked him what he thought of Milosevic, the man launched into an extended commentary of how he spent years protesting the idiocy of this pseudo-dictator who had nearly ruined Serbia. He finished up by saying how sad it was that nationalists in the post-Milsoevic era carried out symbolically foolish actions such as vandalizing a McDonald’s to protest capitalism and foreign intervention in Serbian affairs. After we finished talking he became completely calm and polite. I had scratched just beneath the surface with this Serb and discovered a complex nationalism. There was ferocity, but it was more a symptom of frustration. This was the upshot of losing wars as well as constituent parts of the nation. Yugoslavia was gone, Montenegro was independent and Kosovo was well on its way to statehood. I had the feeling that Serbs, like the one who stood before me, would never accept this situation. Here was a nation that even after being brought to its knees, was still seething with resistance. I found this quality admirable and frightening in unequal measure.

Belgrade - city of protests

Belgrade – city of protests (Credit: Geologicharka )

A Constant Instability – Serbian States Of Mind
My final day in Belgrade I was not due to leave the city until the evening. I spent the afternoon hanging out with the owner of my accommodation. There was another employee on duty, a young college age woman. I first asked the owner what he remembered about the NATO Bombing of Belgrade in 1999. At the time he had been a teenager. “Me and my friends had a blast. We got drunk every night, partying like crazy.” He said nothing about damage to the city or the fear engendered by bombs and missiles descending on his hometown. Instead the bombing sounded like a lark, a reason to binge drink. Maybe this was a coping mechanism or just youthful delinquency. From my few conversations with Serbs I sensed a reckless exuberance, the kind of people who would give the world a middle finger while laughing in the face of fear. An exaggerated assumption on my part perhaps, but there’s was an attitude informed by rebellion.

Earlier in my visit to Belgrade I had walked up on a large crowd involved in a protest outside parliament. Several of the protestors began to shout at me, but not in fury. They seemed to be upset that I had not joined them. I mentioned this to my host who said “those protests happen all the time, but nothing will change. Those people are wasting their time.” That might have been true, but I had a feeling that Serbia was the kind of place always on edge, where instability was a constant. The instability that marked the 1990’s in Serbia was not an anonymous faceless force that had been resigned to the past. Its ramifications were widespread. I found myself face to face with these consequences while talking with a young Serbian woman who was watching the front desk at my accommodation. While making conversation I asked her if she was from Belgrade. No she was not. She had been born in an ethnic Serbian area of Croatia, but as a little girl was forced to flee the war along with her family. As she put it, “The area was no longer safe. We had to leave.” Her family had relatives in Belgrade. This had brought them to the city and they stayed. Going home was impossible even after the fighting ceased.

Nothing Else To Say – An Invisible Barrier
The woman telling me this could have been mistaken for an American college student. She looked and acted perfectly pleasant. It was hard to imagine that as a child she had been a refugee. I knew the stories of inter-ethnic violence during the Yugoslav Wars. Women, even very young women whether Serb, Croatian or Bosniak had been raped by the tens of thousands. Others had managed to escape just in time. This woman had escaped such horrors, but just the idea was horrific. Some things are best not left to the imagination. My conversation with her trailed off, there was an invisible barrier not to be crossed. The Yugoslav Wars were no longer the preserve of journalistic accounts or history books. They were a kind young woman working the front desk, who as a child had escaped death or possibly even worse. That was the legacy of the Yugoslav Wars, there was nothing else to say.

History Stuck On Repeat – The Belgrade Fortress & Neverchanging Human Nature

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.

Belgrade Fortress - one of its many sides (Credit: Danomir)

Belgrade Fortress – one of its many sides (Credit: Danomir)

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.

The Belgrade Fortress has been fought over 115 times - making this sign literally true

The Belgrade Fortress has been fought over 115 times – making this sign literally true

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.

It Was Not Just the Balkans: Pre-World War I Political Violence in Europe

One of the prevailing stereotypes in 19th and 20th century European history is of the Balkans as a tragic and fated land, riven by infighting, feuds, diabolical plotting, ethnic hatred and outright war. There were notable examples of this kind of behavior throughout the region on multiple occasions over the past two centuries. Yet the same could be said for much of Europe during that time.

Bias & Backwardness – The Traditional Balkan Narrative
The reputation of the Balkans took a turn for the worse during the 1990’s. Following the collapse of Communism and Eastern Europe’s peaceful return to democracy and economic development, the former Yugoslavia went in a very different direction, it imploded. What followed became known as the Yugoslav Wars. The fighting was broadcast via television and internet to a western world stunned to see that large scale violence and ethnic cleansing could still occur in post-modern Europe.

The popular press covered the fighting with a wide range of preconceived notions. Among these were several recurring themes including that the violence was endemic to the area’s history, feuding and plotting was a way of life that rose almost to the level of a profession and it was a backward land infused with oriental despotism. Whether these were true or not hardly mattered, they fit into a traditional narrative that had a long history reaching back a couple of hundred years.  Trying to identify the origins of this bias against the Balkans has been the subject of many book length studies. This is not the time, place or space for such a study. Yet an understanding of how the Balkans came to be viewed today as a land of despotism can be easily understood through the action for which it was most famed in the late 19th and early 20th century, the act of assassination.

The exception or the rule - Gavrilo Princip being detained by Austro-Hungarian soldiers right after his assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

The exception or the rule – Gavrilo Princip being detained by Austro-Hungarian soldiers right after his assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Murder & Intrigue – A European Phenomenon
Assassination seems to be the prototypical Balkan crime. It hits on all the derogatory stereotypes given to the region: radical politics, ethnic strife, extreme nationalistic sentiments and subversive conspiracies. It as though the Balkans had the market cornered on this type of behavior. In reality it did not. At the height of an assassination phenomenon lasting from 1900 to 1913, no less than twenty-eight different politicians, diplomats and heads of state were shot, stabbed or blown up in Europe, yet the Balkans accounted for only eight of these. That is less than three out of ten in the supposed powder keg of Europe.

One of the main reasons the Balkans became tarred with a reputation for murderous intrigue was because of two famous assassinations which occurred in the area during the early 20th century.  One is still well known today, the other relatively forgotten even though it caused a sensation at the time it occurred.  The more famous of the two was the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo by a Bosnian Serb nationalist. It goes down as one of the most improbable and important events in modern times. The reverberations from that murder led to World War One. People who haven’t the slightest idea about the Austro-Hungarian Empire or its annexation of Bosnia are still aware that a strange character known as an Archduke was gunned down in Sarajevo. Many still believe such crimes to be typical of a backward region consumed by ancient hatreds.

Le Petit Parisien cover image of the assassination of King Alexander I of Serbia

Le Petit Parisien cover image of the assassination of King Alexander I of Serbia

Primitive Instincts
The other, lesser known political murder which informed the popular image of the Balkans took place in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia in 1903. In what is now called the May Overthrow, a group of Army officers led a coup against King Alexander I and his wife Queen Draga. The conspiracy is said to have grown to the point that it included an astounding 160 people. On the 29th of May, just a few hours past midnight, in the damp, chill air of Belgrade, the Royal Palace was surrounded by officers and soldiers determined to kill the King. They had a difficult time getting access to the royal quarters, but were determined enough to blow the King’s bedroom door open with dynamite. After searching in vain for a considerable amount of time, the royal couple was discovered hiding behind a secret door. What happened next is open to debate, but it seems that both the king and queen were almost immediately shot. The conspirators then took turns sabering them, accounts state that up to twenty-eight slashes were inflicted upon their bodies.

To add a final humiliation, the bodies were dumped out of a second story window of the palace onto manure piles in the gardens. The report of the coup made headlines all across Europe. The vindictive violence done to the corpses was shocking and bestial. This helped cement a popular impression of the Balkans as a land of backwardness, where royalty was treated with utter contempt. Interestingly, both famous Balkan assassinations took the lives of royal spouses. In this land, even the wives of royal heirs and monarchs were not safe.

Nikolai Bobrikov, the Governor General of Finland was one of three political figures assassinated in the Nordic Country during the early 20th century. Political violence was endemic and sometimes much worse in other parts of Europe than the Balkans

Nikolai Bobrikov, the Governor General of Finland was one of three political figures assassinated in the Nordic Country during the early 20th century. Political violence was endemic and sometimes much worse in other parts of Europe than the Balkans

Alternative Reality – European Backwardness
The two assassinations still inform how the Balkans is viewed today. The region has never really been able to escape the popular perception of what happened in Belgrade and Sarajevo over a century ago. The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990’s only tended to exacerbate matters. Ignorance by the general public in this case lends itself not to bliss, but to fear. Many avoid travel to Bosnia or Serbia due to its violent reputation. Those who do travel to the region are pleasantly surprised. Despite the fact that it is still developing economically it is one of the safest places in the whole of Europe with incredible natural and cultural history on offer.

Those who do bypass the Balkans would do well to remember that the rest of Europe was plagued just as much or more by political murder in the early years of the 20th century. For instance, in 1900 the King of Italy was shot dead, pierced by the four bullets of an assassin. Four notable Russian politicians were murdered from 1900 – 1911 and even in Finland (a land which today conjures up images of placid serenity) three notable public figures were murdered in a seven year period beginning in 1904. Yet no one much recalls those acts of violence. There is something about the Balkans that brings to mind smoke filled coffee houses, populated with saboteurs plotting to bring down the powerful. Whether this is true or not, hardly matters. That is the perception in the western world and that perception has created its own reality.