THE CROAT PROBLEM

III. WHAT THE MAN-IN-THE-STREET THINKS

"Don't take Dr. Trumbitch too seriously," said the officials at Belgrade when I approached them on the subject. "He is an old man, you know! A soured old man at that. He thinks he has been dismissed unjustly, and naturally he does not love us. Dr. Trumbitch, ex-minister of Foreign Affairs though he be, is not the whole of Croatia."
Perhaps, after all, they are right! There are notoriously two sides to every question! I hammered that fact into my brain and listened in patience to the denials of Belgrade. Then I went and talked to the men-in-the-street-business men, workers, and the peasants of Croatia.
All the Croats and Slovenes whom I questioned in the course of my investigations were at one with Dr. Trumbitch. At Zagreb, at Ljubljana, at Skoplje, at Zemoun, at Belgrade even, I talked with priests, professors, doctors, merchants, and the simple people. They all backed up what Trumbitch had said-yes, even the soldiers.

What impressed me even more was the feeling which they held for France. Why does France support the Serbs against us? they asked me. France is a republic. Doesn't she know what we are suffering, or doesn't she want to know? Tell France that the day will come when we shall be free, and then we shall remember how France has stood by and watched us suffer. Yes, I said to myself, we Frenchmen will suffer deeply for our neglect of the humanities here, just as we suffered in 1915 from Bulgaria as a result of our injustice in 1913.

Apart from what I learned from the populace of Croatia and Slovenia, I have gained much knowledge from the slips made by Belgrade officials. Statements and denials made by them I have proven false - as when they denied the military occupation of Croatia and Slovenia which I had seen with my own eyes. Also I have not forgotten the hatred, mingled with fear, with which Dr. Marianovitch, President of the Press Bureau, referred to the chiefs of Croatia, Slovenia and Dalmatia. Power which is sure of itself does not talk in that fashion. Nor does an official of a sound government have to declare, as one did in my presence, that they "awaited a favourable occasion" to lay hold of the traitors.

But listen to what the Man-in-the-Street has to say! Here, for example, is Meslitch, whom I had known years before in Croatia. I met him by chance not many months ago as I was leaving the Presidency at Belgrade.

Meslitch is a Croat who had married a Serb and had lived in Belgrade for twenty-five years, making a great deal of money out of business. I cried out with delight at seeing him again, and he responded with a resounding "My dear friend!" and then added in a whisper, "Ah! So I've caught you leaving this dirty hovel, eh?"
I could not conceal my surprise. "Dirty hovel?" I cried. "So that's what you call the Presidency of the Council? Your Dictatorship doesn't appear to impress you very much." Meslitch's jovial face creased in alarm. He seized my arm. "Hush, for God's sake," he whispered, and hurried me along. "You ought to know that we cannot speak our minds openly in Belgrade," he added a few seconds later. "We cannot meet the people we want to meet, say what we think as man to man, read the newspapers and books we like, or love where we have the desire to love. This country, that once was as honest and just as any you could find, has become a factory of beasts and cowards!"

As we passed the Royal Palace, a colonel of the guards, moustachioed and smiling, saluted my companion. Meslitch returned the salute effusively and we hurried on. "Listen, my friend," he said, "I know how you are living here. In the diningroom of your hotel you sit at the same table every day by special request of the manager, and you are given the exclusive attention of the same waiter every day. They tell you that he does not understand French, but that he will be able to understand you well enough to fetch the food and drink you want. Well, that waiter speaks better French than you do, and he doesn't lose a single word you say. He knows every move you make and reports them all to his employer." "His employer?" I asked. "What the devil does he want with my affairs?"
"Ha!" said Meslitch. "What doesn't he want? You can't guess, eh?"
"No," I said.
"Perhaps you will when you know that the waiter's boss is the Chief of Police."
I stopped and faced Meslitch.
"Good God!" I said. "Has it come to that?"
Meslitch shrugged his shoulders.
"To that?" he echoed. "That's nothing! You ought to see!"
"Oh! I've seen a little," I said. "It's obvious that things are in a bad way."
"Bad way! Mon dieu! Bad way!"
Meslitch's face went crimson, and he began to loosen his tongue.
Listen to him! A Man-in-the-street-a business man of Yugoslavia.
"After the victory," he said, "everyone marched hand in hand together, except the Macedonians and Magyars, which we understood! We didn't know where we were going, but everyone went there with confidence. In any case you were here, you saw! From one end of the country to the other there was the same elan, wasn't there? A common will to work together for the country, to fuse all our little countries into one great nation. Why, when King Alexander, he was only Regent at the time, visited Zagreb, he was acclaimed as he had never been at Belgrade.
"It was too good! It couldn't last! It hasn't lasted, anyhow. Peace had not been signed a year before they started eating each other. Sorry! The Serbs here were eating the others, was what I meant. They jumped upon our country, our work, our riches, like locusts! Ah, the dirty curs!"

Meslitch was so furious that he forgot all prudence and raised his voice.
"Because they were the strongest with their army of veterans and the support which France gave them, they monopolised all the positions, all the money and all the power. As for the rest of the country-nothing! And especially for us Croats, whom they hate because we are richer, better educated, more Europeanised, and also because we are Catholics while they are Greek Orthodox.
"Racial brothers, they call us! Pah! That all sounds very well in royal proclamations, in articles of propaganda, and in the communications that the Serbian Press-Bureau dictates to French journalists passing through Belgrade.
"But what is the real truth about the way we Croats are treated by our dear Serbian 'racial brothers'? God! They have crushed us with taxes, and used the money to fill Croatia with Serbian soldiers. That fact alone ought to be enough! If there were any true patriotism in Yugoslavia then Croat soldiers would do for Croatia. But not now. The game is up! Yugoslavia is flying to pieces, and the Serbs are trying to hold it together by force. Of course, they explain the presence of the Serbian soldiers very easily. The Croat soldiers fought on the side of Hungary during the War, they say, and they are not loyal to Serbia.
"That is true up to a point, and there certainly was a lot of sympathy for Hungary among the Croat officers and officials. That the powers-that-be in Yugoslavia should want to get rid of them is quite natural. It was their right. Our own Croat chiefs were the first to admit it, and to recommend a general clear-out. But that is a long time ago. Things have altered since then-all things except the Serbian mind. That still remains as thick as ever. There is no longer any excuse for shutting our men out of the high posts, yet men who are not Serbians by birth, and who do not profess the Orthodox faith, are rigidly excluded from all but the lowest governmental posts. Not only are there no Croats in Serbian posts, but all the best posts in Croatia are occupied by Serbians." "All?" I asked.
"As nearly all as makes no difference," replied my friend. "Do you want figures? I know them by heart.
"At the Ministry of the Interior, 113 out of 125 officials are Serbs. At the Foreign Office, 180 out of 219. At the Presidency of the Council, 13 out of 13. At the Ministry of Justice, 113 out of 136. At the Securities Bank, 196 out of 200. At the court, 30 out of 31, and so it goes on. "Add to this, my friend, the fact that all the Serb officials are Orthodox, and that hardly half of the non-Serbs are Catholic, and you have a complete picture of the state of affairs. Now, according to the census taken two years ago, the percentage of the two religions in Yugoslavia is 42 for the Orthodox, and 39 for the Catholics, the rest being Musulmans or Jews. Yet nobody dare point out the discrepancy. Do you know that for having dared to say these things to his priests, in a confidential message, the coadjutor of our Catholic Bishop of Belgrade has just been condemned by the judges to fifteen days in prison for endangering national safety. He is doing them now. I tell you, we are racial brothers all right! "After the War we came to the Serbs with open arms. They have treated us as though we are enemies. Of course we resisted, but the officials of Belgrade outlawed our chiefs and our organisations. In order to subdue us, they have smothered Croatia and Slovenia beneath Serb regiments. For the Croat patriots, whose only crime was to complain against the despotism and injustice of which we have been suffering, there has been nothing but exile, court-martial, hard labour, the gallows and assassination. You saw the railway station at Zagreb after the railroad strike in 1923, where after four days the dead were still lying where they had fallen. You know that when it became impossible for them to keep Stephan Raditch and his friends in prison any longer the Serbs simply assassinated them!
"To-day, after fourteen years of life in common, our government of Yugoslavia-our government, I repeat the joke - in order to prevent an armed insurrection from breaking out from one end to the other of Croatia and Slovenia, is having to keep there more than sixty thousand Serb gendarmes, police and soldiers, whilst our own boys are in the garrisons of Macedonia, commanded by Serb non-commissioned officers. In Croatia it is the peasants of Choumadia, or the illiterate brutes from Nisch or from Kragoujevatz, who supervise our populations and lend a willing hand to the police. "The Macedonians complain about our soldiers being there, but what about us? Why, you've no idea of the existence suffered by our people in Croatia. In the prisons they subject our suspects to tortures more atrocious than those of the Inquisition. Here in Belgrade in December of last year, I saw the trial of Dr. Toth, the Director of the Customs of Zagreb and some of his friends. They were accused of high treason. I saw them when they entered the court-room. It was horrible! Most of them could not walk because the police magistrates had smashed their testicles in order to make them confess to what they had not done. Dr. Toth had half his teeth broken, and had aged twenty years. My God! It was awful!
"Professor Sufflay was assassinated by the order of the Minister of the Interior, and the murder was carried out by agents delegated by the Central Commissar of Police at Zagreb. Dr. Mile Budak, one of the directing personalities of the Croat opposition, was attacked and beaten to death by the members of the Pan-Serb terrorist association, Young Yugoslavia, which the Chief of Police of Zagreb directs, and the president of which is the general commanding the garrison there.
"The citizens of Zagreb ask themselves why the police did not come to defend the victim; why the assassins who were arrested by the civilians have been liberated; and who imprisoned the citizens who had handed them over to the police. "But this is not the end of it: a list of 27 political personalities of Zagreb has been discovered, a list alleged to have been drawn up by the Novi Pokret, with indications to the effect that all on the list are to be assassinated on the same night. Also it is quite well known that the aggressors of Dr. Budak, namely, Sahinovitch Saban, Sarani Adem and Voja Karakatenovitch, are all three agents of the State Secret Service, that they are all inscribed on the list of official spies and that they are paid out of the secret funds of the State.
"And yet, to hear the Serbs talk, you would gather that they are astonished that we resist, that all our young people rise up against them, and that such men as Trumbitch, Korochetz, Matchek and Pavelitch encourage and direct this resistance. The Serbs are even indignant; they cry "treason!" because all Croatia and Slovenia, young and old, rich and poor, dreams of but one thing: freedom from this thing called Yugoslavia. "The words of Hungary fourteen years ago, when we Croats acclaimed the union with Serbia, have been perfectly justified. You will see, they told us, before two years have passed the Serbs will treat you as cattle. You will regret the day you were cut off from Hungary! Their words have come true - we regret it all right."
I am afraid I laughed and said: "It is a little late, isn't it? You won't stay with Serbia, and you won't go back to Hungary! Croatia alone could not make a State!"
"Couldn't it?" snapped Meslitch. "What makes you think so? A free Croatia would exist very well; she would find again the prosperity that the Serbian administration made her lose. But we don't look for that. There are also Slovenia, Dalmatia and Bosnia. What about them? They would join with us, and together we would form a Catholic State extending from the Adriatic to the Danube, which would group together all the Europeans who in 1918 committed the stupidity of letting themselves become the underlings of a Balkan people.
"You may say that it is too late, and that we are eternally condemned to drag the Yugoslav ball and chain along with us. You are hopelessly wrong, old friend. I don't know how the separation will take place, but I am convinced that nothing can stop it.
"Don't think me rabid. I am not rabid - merely deliberate. I am a peaceful man, and, moreover, strange though it may seem, I love Serbia profoundly. My wife is a Serbian. I fought for Serbia, when there was some merit in doing so. Therefore, what I say to you I have the right to say. My words are not treasonable; they are the words of a patriot who is opposed to the governmental methods of Serbia, but who loves the country and its people still."

Index Previous