Someone was heard complaining, the other day, about the 'absurd confusions' of the recent war in the Balkans. Very well: but why absurd? Or when have such confusions been anything save absurd? In this respect, at any rate, the unmaking of Yugoslavia can be seen as par for the course. It happened to me on a chill April morning, 55 years ago, to be sitting by a roadside outside Belgrade waiting for transport during another absurd confusion. Nothing at all had damaged me, which was quite fortunate, for a few hours earlier during that morning's bombing I had been sheltering in the cellars of the Hotel Majestic, as it was pleased to call itself, along the way from the Kalemegdan Fortress. Now I was outside the city on the old road going south into Bosnia, and Belgrade behind me hovered beneath a shroud of dust and smoke as Hitler's bombers swung into their stride again. Having begun at dawn, they would continue until late the next day, there being nothing to stop them. Thousands of Belgrade citizens and others with them were dead or about to die: as many as 17,000 according to a subsequent estimate. Other thousands were walking south in a blind search for their army, for any fighting unit they could join. Two such men had come to a halt beside me. They were in loud and angry argument. The younger of them was cursing as only enraged Serbs know how to curse. Their defenceless city should never have been reduced to ruins. But, criminally, it had been - and by whose fault? He cursed the generals and their political bosses. He cursed all manner of traitors, cowards, fools, whoever. I felt for him - who wouldn't, as things were? - but the other man tried to comfort him. To me very memorably, even in that highrise confusion, this other man said: 'We'll find the Army. We'll reach it even if we have to go to Greece, to go as far as Solun' - as far as distant Salonika to which an earlier army had retreated in 1914, during the Great War against the Austrians and their emperor, Franz Joseph.
LRB 23 May 1996 | PDF Download