The Belgrade of yesterday was half-Serb, half-Turk a mysterious, lovable city of contrasting civilizations. Today, very little of the Belgrade of yesterday remains. All that made up its originality and charm is gone. Even the old Turkish fortress has been embellished with stairs of reinforced concrete, of which every flight is horribly ornamented with cast-iron flower-pots. Those quaint little Turkish homes, with their vine-carpeted outer courts and their sweet-smelling jasmines; all have given way to the modernity of giant buildings, pretentious and vulgar. Yesterday's taverns, where gallants used to sit and drink plum brandy and nibble salted cucumbers, have given place to the palaces which house the Ministries of War, Foreign Affairs, Finance, Agriculture, Interior, Roads and Communication.
A few still exist here and there, but by the time these words are in print they will probably have gone the way of the others. Where little more than five years ago were waste lands poepled with gypsies and mangy dogs, are now huge buildings with facades, flat roofs, and garish interiors carpeted with Oriental rugs, furnished in German style, and sheltering armies of clerks and stenographers.
Behind the colossal mass of the Ministry of Finance the ancient Skouptchina is falling slowly to decay. Here a ticket of ten dinars permits foreign tourists to visit the spot where Stjepan Radic was assassinated in June 1928. In the musty, deserted atmosphere, one's footsteps resound as in a tomb.
This new Belgrade is impersonal, cold and unoriginal. It is a caricature of other European capitals. Flashy hotels and restaurants are on every pavement, and luxury cinemas stand on every corner. Bars, cafes and shops are everywhere. The port of Belgrade is growing every hour, and will soon be one of the greatest on the Danube. The builders of the New Belgrade have killed the picturesque, warm-hearted inefficiency of the place. They have destroyed its past and killed its soul, and have inspired it with nothing but the spirit of Babylon.
From ten o'clock till midday, from five until midnight, as soon as the weather is warm enough, the wide central avenues are filled with crowds. Mihailovska Street, Place Terasia, in front of the Cafes Moskwa and Balkan, the favourite rendezvous of officers and business men; around the sweet-shops and ice-cream cafes, there is such an animation, such a coming and going of amusement-seekers, that the ordinary pedestrian has only a narrow passage left in which to walk. To the onlooker it seems as if half the population of Belgrade think only of flirting, or listening to the latest Viennnese concerts, and the frivolities that are thundered by giant amplifiers to even the smallest cafe. One might also be forgiven for believing that they lived almost entirely on plae ale or iced coffee, whipped cream and sweets. Everybody is strolling, flirting, smiling and saluting that is, everybody who has a dress, as suit, or a costume presentable enough to exibit. Splendid motor-cars move in and out among the gaily-coloured taxies.
As I walked the streets of Belgrade I tried to puzzle out the enigma which confronted me. Her was a country which for three years had been suffering an economic crisis in comparison with which the troubles of other European nations sink into insignificance. Here was a country whose affairs had been aggravated by more and more disquiting political difficulties. The Serb dinar was worth about a penny three-fartings. The trade balance of Yugoslavia was catastrophic. The harvests accumulated unsold and unsaleable in the silos and warehouses. The taxes, disproportinate to the capacity of the taxpayers, were collected with greater and greater difficulty, and very often they were not collected at all. Commerce had long since exhausted its bank credits; failures were legion, and the dinar had been saved from a bottomless pit only by a double advance by the French Government of one billion and fifty million francs in July 1931, and another 400 millions in the same year. The devaluation of the dinar had reduced the national revenue, the pensions, the mortgage values, and the purchasing power of all the salaries by more than fifty per cent. The unemployment was enormous, the cost of living mounted incessantly, and the exportation of capital was utterly prohibited. Yugoslavia had only been able to avoid financial catastrophe by means of continual and prodigal support by France.
Only the officers and police officials were still regularly paid. For two years the civil agents had been paid only on account, with arrears that ran into weeks and months. In July 1932, the professors of the University of Belgrade had recieved only an advance of ten per cent on their salaries for June, and I met instructors, employees of the prefecture, and railroad men in Choumadia and Southern Serbia who had not received a dinar since the month of May 1932.
Yet here were streets filled with women hurrying to the modiste, to the hairdresser, to the pastry shop; here were employees of the Ministry, army officers, and young bourgeois sitting for hours at the cafe tables spending the salaries that hardly afford them shelter. Salaries are not high in Yugoslavia. An infantry commander gets about 20 pounds a month, and on this he is asked to maintain all the extravagances of his rank! Think of the position of a second lieutenant! A chief of service at the Ministry gets 22 pounds a month, and a bank clerk, or assistant young typist, wearing a dress of rose crepede-chine, her legs glistening in artificial silk! She gets about 7 pounds 10s a month- scarcely the price of her dress!
How do they manage it! I asked Stefanitch. He is an old friend of mine. A true Serb. A patriot, but a realist, who was conducting me round this Balkan Babylon.
"They don't manage it!" Stefanitch replied. "All the beautiful women and all the little flappers are riddled with debts. There is not a house here, not a bit of ground, not an inheritance, that is not crushed under mortgages; there is not a moneylender who does not find more borrowers at twentyfive or thirty per cent than he has money to lend. All the people here who astonish you so by their luxuriousness live only for the outside, for appearences, for the noise they make. Don't tell them they are crazy! They would reply that the crazy one is you; and that they know what they are doing. They are counting on a miracle. I don't know what - nor do they.
"Fortunately, my friend, in spite of it all, there are still men and women who have not lost the healthy traditions of our race! Little merchants who struggle to meet their engagements; little bourgeois who count and recount before spending a sou; little clerks whom the terror of tomorrow haunts. You won't meet them in the fine shops, on the terraces of the cafes, or at the tables of expensive restaurants. They wear old clothes, shoes half-soled and mended; their wives go patiently from stall to stall at the market in order to save a few centimes on their purchases. Their only luxury is a chair at Kalemeigdan on Sunday evenings or a glass of beer in the family circle or in a little tavern. They have gained nothing from the dictatorship, and they expect nothing from it. They hate it!They work, and they suffer in silence. But it can't last!"
We passed the gilded gates of Kalemeigdan, and passed along the terrace which overlooks the admirable panorama of the suburbs and the two rivers.We make our way between massive shrubs and flowers which indefatigable gardeners sprinkle continually.
At the opening of the central lane two pretty girls, with hips and breasts accentuated, pass us. They are dressed, shod and painted like the mannequins in a fashion book.
"You see that," Stefanitch observes. "To enable them to buy what they wear on their backs, these two girls, who are probably typists at the Ministry or the Bank, have perhaps eaten scraps and leavings for six months! They earn about 1 pound 15s. a week. Perhaps not that! Yet they are wearing more than 22 pounds of dresses and hats, without counting the rest. Kept? Oh no! The second lieutenant or the student who sleeps with them is as poor as they, and he would not consider sharing their burdens. So they make the best of it they can. They take their money where they find it, and spend sixpence for the day's food: bread, fruits, a piece of cheese or salted fish.
"You can be sure of this: those two girls haven't a stitch in the world other than what they are wearing now. Why, they're not even wearing knickers, I'll bet. They live in some hole near the old port or on the route to Topsider. There you would find them going bare-foot in old run-down shoes, dressed either in a ragged chemise, or perhaps clothed only in their virtue. In their room is only a bed with a tattered blanket, a wash-basin on a bench, and a few nails in the wall to hang up their all. But perfumes, and boxes of powder, and sticks odf rouge, you can bet they don't lack anything like that. They paint first and eat afterwards.
"Girls like that when I was young, when Serbia was still sane, would have been spanked by their mothers. Today, what else can you expect? They drift in the current, they do what they see everyone else about them doing."
Everyone else? Oh no, Stefanitch! Not everyone. What about the miserable shacks in the workers' suburbs on the route from Avala, from Topsider, or towards the port of the Sava in the little back-steets behind the Central markets. There you will find bands of half-naked children who should be in school, but whom on one thinks of sending there, and who,moreover, have neither shoes nor clothing to go there in, but chase each other yelling and screaming on the dusty roads. There you will find men and women in rags, with emanciated faces, their hands dangling at their sides, who slouch on the doorsteps. There you will find old men in dark corners, hunting in rubbish piles for bread and rotten fruit.
A hundred metres fro the Presidency of the Council, at Kralja Alexander Street, workers eat in the shade of the sumptuous palace that they are building. Lean men with long palikar moustaches and shaggy hair. It is noon. They have been working since dawn; and they will work till nightfall for a wage of about a shilling. Their repast consists of half a water melon,for which they have paid about a penny, and a piece of black bread, washed down with poor beer. They are stretched out on the debris, exhausted with fatigue and heat.
They sneer and mutter under their breath when a commandant of the guards immpeccable in his canvas uniform, swaggers past them on the side-walk,rigid as on parade.
Along the rows of chairs at Cafe Moskwa, where young elegants in bright waistcoats and plastered hair suck sherbets and flirt with pretty girls, the unemployed may be seen in contrast. Mostly in rags, toes protruding from worn-out shoes, hair falling down their faces, they all have the same ravaged features, the same rancorous aspect of lost dogs. They dive between the tables with a rapid movement, and pick up cigarette butts and crumbs of rolls and sandwiches. I have seen them throw themselves flat on their stomachs in the mud to size a fine morsel from between the feet of indifferent customers. Certain ones, to judge by their age, must be "heroes of the Great War." But most of them are very young.
This is all very well in the summer. But what of the terrible winter which in the Balkans covers the land under immense layers of snow and ice. What will then be the privation and suffering of these poor people of the country and the city and of the unemployed whom no one aids? "Hunger is a bad counsellor," I said to my friend. "Will there not be trouble?"
"Perhaps!" Stefanitch replied. "Perhaps! But the forces of the Government are strong!" Two gendarmes pass us- carabines in the sling, revolvers in the belt,massive and powerful. In front of us, by the corner of Pozoristina, near the Opera, go two others. A batallion of infantry coming back from excerises parades along Kalemeigdan with long, rapid strides, preceded by a machine-gun section and armored cars. Four battle planes roar high overhead. We have not been walking an hour, ywt we have encountered more than fifty officers or soldiers, more than twenty policmen in uniform.
Stefanitch is right. Armed force is everywhere visible. One feels it to be admirably in hand, resolved to tolerate nothing against the established order of things: sure of itself, all-powerful, irresistible.
The police, too, uniformed and plain-clothes, are everywhere; they penetrate everywhere, they inspect and spy upon us. They know everything and they are assisted in their task by the gendarmerie, which is the most important of all Europe- there is a gendarme in Yugoslavia per 500 inhabitants. This force does not merely prevent disorder, it annihilates it.
When the students at the University of Belgrade demonstrated against the government of General Givkovitch, the repression was calculatingly mild and with good reason, for numerous foreign journalists were in Belgrade at the time. There were two thousand students in the university buildings, overexcited, organised and well directed. Yet in less than an hour all had been cleared away and the hospitals and clinics of the capital had to refuse all further patients. Very few of the wounded were discourteous enough to die in public.
The following incident I saw with my own eyes. It was five o'clock in the evening. The Cafe Moskwa was filled. In the open space of Terasia Place, from which only the width of the side-walk and the street separated me, were two policemen in uniform. Immediately under the arch where I sat a portly man was sitting with his wife on the terrace of the cafe. He was talking and laughing with her. Suddenly he rose, blew his whistle for the two traffic policemen who turned on their heels on hearing his call, and pointed out a passer-by on the terrace. Then he went towards the man, who was tall and lanky, and walked slowly with a lowered head. Twenty seconds later the three agents threw themselves upon him. What a fight! All the people in the cafe rose, the passer-by made a circle round the combatants. The man fought furiously. Twice he freed himself, and twice he was seized again.
"Zivila sloboda!" (Long live liberty!) he cried, but the crowd of two or three hundred people remained silent and impassive. He got a blow from a club on the nape of the neck, enough to kill a steer. He collapsed, and in the twinkling of an eye he was bound hand and foot, his arms fastened behind his back with handcuffs, his legs bound to his hands. He groaned, and a kick on the jaw silenced him. Trussed like a roast chicken, vomiting blood, he was thrown like a sack into a taxi. Ghastly sight! I can see it still!
The whole disgusting scene did not last five minutes. The portly gentlemam, brushing himself, came to rejoin his wife who embraced him as a hero.
"A revolutionary, sir," remarked my neighbour, a little old man decorated with the Order of Saint Sava who was nibbling a raisin cake. "It doesn't do to miss one of them!"
My response must have displeased him, for he rose quickly, threw his money on the table, and sped away so quickly that he fogot to salute me.
Contrast this ugly bestiality with the gilded lasciviousness all around you, and you have a good picture of the New Belgrade- a city that is like a nouveau riche who cannot stop dancing, yet spits ugly words at his poor relations who cluster about him. Here is the Casino! Come in with me and see another side of Belgrade. It is like a harem here; hundreds of mammas with daughters to marry; hundreds of women who act as though they had no husbands, and sit with their legs crossed half-way up the thigh; hundreds of young men who hesitate between the virgins and the married women. They flirt around the little tables situated under the well-kept trees; they embrace behind thick bushes; they drink beer and iced coffee; they dance to the rhythm of the military music.
The women of Belgrade, and in fact of all Yugoslavia, are attractive and weel-made. They are rather tall and plump, the bust upright on vigorous hips, well-muscled legs and splendid teeth, theyradiate health strength and a sex-appeal so ardent that it expalins the estonishing birth-rate in Yugoslavia.
The ardour of the women of Yugoslavia probably explains why there is no prostitution visible throughout the whole country. Indeed, there are very few Serb prostitutes. This social function is the quasi-monopoly of Croat, Hungarian and Roumanian specialists. Was, I should say, rather because for some years now these modest workers have been hard hit by German dumping. At present, more than half of the professional love-makers at Belgrade are German and Austrian.
The German prostitutes have not come to Belgrade alone. They have been accompanied by their habitual retinue of travelling salesmen, engineers, and interloping financiers. German influence is again becoming considerable in Yugoslavia. Economic and financial influences will follow more officially at a favorable moment.
German electricity, metallurgy, public works, even aviation firms, have succeeded little by little in winning official contracts, concessions and orders of all kinds. Being too prudent to do it directly, they have transacted with middlemen in association with foreign houses.
In Belgrade to-day, Germans are everywhere. French is never spoken. Not a merchant, not one waiter out of ten understands, much less speaks, French. Nine out of ten speak and understand German. Those who understand and speak French, outside the high officials and university men, are mainly the Serbs who fought on France's side, or who were in hospital in France from 1915 to 1919.
I will give but a single example of German prowess in the Balkan Babylon. Almost 250 million francs were loaned by France to Belgrade in 1931. Of this sum a little more than half was used by the Yugoslavs to buy long-range observation 'planes from the German Junker works. The rest went to pay for bombing 'planes furnished by the Dornier establishment in Italy.
This "incident" was exposed in November 1931, before the Commission of Foreign Affairs of the French Parliament. Different representatives, among whom M. Eugene Lautier took a prominent part, and a public debate was strongly and in great detail, and a public debate was avoided only with difficulty. The result was that the French Government made represenatations to Belgrade of such a violent nature that King Alexander had to go to Paris in 1931 to settle matters. The cleverness of the sovereign succeeded in a certain measure in the "stupid lunders" of his collaborators; but the French Government thereupon made the decision (to which it ahs strictly adhered) to regulate henceforth the military supplies contracted by Yugoslavia with French credit, and to have the prices verified by inspactors just as their own prices were verified.
Belgrade, in short, is a whirl of conflicting opinions, passions, nationalities, loyalties, and creeds. It is a mushroom growth that has swept away a piquant city of Old Serbia. Within its walls you will find intrigue, brutality and sordidness side by side with nonchalant gaiety and lasciviousness. It is a Tower of Babel built from the blood and tears of the oppressed minorities, and it lacks any cohesive force whatsoever, except the unnatural and tyrannical forces of the dictatorship.
It is the central hub of a great wheel that is turning faster every day, and which must at last fly to pieces by its own centrifugal force.