Version classiqueVersion mobile

Cent ans après : la mémoire de la Première Guerre mondiale

Elli Lemonidou

Serbia’s Effort in the Great War: Testimonies, Commemorations, Interpretations

Dušan T. Bataković


Le souvenir de la Grande Guerre en Serbie a un poids historique particulier. Les lourdes pertes subies par les soldats et les civils serbes et l’escalade dramatique des événements touchant la Serbie au cours des quatre années de guerre ont largement contribué à la survie à long terme de la mémoire de la Première Guerre mondiale chez les Serbes, en dépit d’une série de retournements ultérieurs pour le pays, en termes de régime et d’État. L’analyse montre comment cette mémoire durable a suivi de près et a été ajustée aux principaux modèles idéologiques des trois périodes majeures de l’État yougoslave uni. Une attention particulière est accordée aux monuments liés à la gloire serbe et au martyre pendant la guerre. L’accent est également mis sur la coexistence souvent troublée d’un récit strictement serbe sur la Grande Guerre avec l’idéologie yougoslave dominante pendant plusieurs décennies couvrant sous le même parapluie des peuples qui avaient des expériences diverses de la période 1914-1918.

Texte intégral

1The memory of the Great War in Serbia has particular historic weight due to the many consequences it had on Serbia’s future development: the 1914-1918 war is remembered as an unprecedented, outstanding nation-wide effort to save not only the threatened independence, but the very survival of the Serbian nation. It was an effort that started with heroic resistance (1914) and martyrdom (1915) and led, despite the occupation and painful retreat through Albania, to the prodigious recovery at Corfu and spectacular victories during the crucial phase of the Great War at the Salonika Front in the autumn of 1918. It was, in many ways, the final phase of Serbian nation-building which had started in 1804 and provided the decisive elements of Serb modern identity.

  • 1 Reiss 1915. More on war suffering in the documented analysis by Dr Rodolphe Archibald Reiss (1875- (...)

2Furthermore, there was almost no family in Serbia that did not profoundly suffer during the First World War, including from property destruction, forced resettlement, mass emigration, denationalization, imprisonment, internment and recurrent war crimes against Serbian civilians during the three years of foreign occupation (1915-1918)1. Starting in 1914, during the first two invasions against Serbia, there were visible efforts on the part of the Austro-Hungarian forces to annihilate the civilian population in the areas bordering the Dual Monarchy, while the scale of violence made a lasting imprint on the post-war memory of the whole Serbian nation. As testified by Dr Rodolphe Archibald Reiss, the renowned forensic expert from Lausanne, horrible war crimes were committed by the Austro-Hungarian invading troops during the two campaigns between August and early December 1914: the soldiers of the Dual Monarchy executed thousands of Serbian civilians, including elderly people, women and children in war-torn western Serbia, totalling 69  000 persons. In addition, the 600  000 internally displaced Serbs were a heavy burden for the eastern and northern parts of Serbia.

  • 2 See more in Scianna 2012.
  • 3 Barby 1918, p. 112-113 (with photos taken on the spot). Very useful and detailed is Price 1918. On (...)

3In contrast to the pre-1914 approach, the new strategy of war crimes targeted the civilian population as the victims and not as a potential source of rebellion: it was this new kind of industrial war against the civilian population of a distinct nation, the Serbs in this case, which led to the totalization of war. The Austrian actions in Serbia during 1914, as clearly identified by recent research, had a planned exterminatory character2. After two successfully repulsed Austro-Hungarian invasions, half of Serbia remained with a destroyed economy, including agriculture. A precious testimony is given by the renowned French war correspondent of the Parisian Le Journal, Henry Barby, who was shocked by the scale of destruction in Western Serbia between the cities of Šabac, Loznica and Valjevo3.

  • 4 Apollinaire 1917. See also Diehl 1915.

4The fact that the whole territory of Serbia was under foreign occupation –Austrian and Bulgarian– during the three-year period left no part of the country spared of pillage and devastation. The scale of destruction and repressive measures against the civilian population perpetrated by the occupying forces often surpassed all that was seen in Belgium or in certain areas of France in the previous phases of war. Eventually occupied after the tripartite Austro-German-Bulgarian invasion in October 1915, Serbia was subdivided into Austrian and Bulgarian occupation zones. In Bulgarian occupied areas in the southern territories of Serbia there were unhidden efforts to denationalize Serbs and deprive them of their Serbian identity, as described, among other sources, in a vivid analysis written by Guillaume Apollinaire4.

  • 5 See also other comprehensive reports by Reiss 1918; Reiss 1919; Reiss, Bonnassieux 1919; more deta (...)

5In addition, these attempts to denationalize the Serbian population were followed by the systematic destruction and devastation of cultural goods: the plundering of libraries, archives and monastery treasuries, in order to erase national memory of the Serbian people. Furthermore, after initial submission, the revolts that erupted in the southern areas justified the intensified terror of the Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian military authorities against civilians through increased waves of internments, mass arrests and arbitrary executions5.

  • 6 Keegan 1998, p. 7.

6The second element that shaped postwar memories was related to the high toll of war victims, one of the highest percentage-wise, that provoked a long-term demographic misbalance: 1.2 million military and civilian victims –translating to 55% of the active male population– out of a pre-war total of roughly 4.9 million inhabitants. The decimated Serbia at the end of the Great War gave a definite aura of the highest national self-sacrifice in a war that was perceived by most of the Serbs as an unjustified aggression motivated by the imperial designs of a vanishing and oppressive empire –the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. However, the number of Serbian victims in various assessments is not accurate. The widely read British military historian John Keegan stressed that Imperial Germany was not “the worst proportionate sufferer. That country was Serbia”6.

  • 7 Sturzenegger 1920, p. 7-8, p. 11.

7Following the incomplete and thus not fully accurate calculation of Austrian-American scholar Barbara Jelavich, Keegan acknowledged that Serbia had lost 125 000 soldiers and 650 000 civilians in the Great War. Therefore, casualties of 775 000 would mean that Serbia lost roughly 16% of her population compared with 2 to 3% in the cases of Germany, France and Great Britain. Nevertheless, the number of victims, in particular among civilians in Serbia, was significantly higher. In January 1921, within her 1914 frontiers, Serbia had only 3.87 million inhabitants, clearly showing that the death toll was around 1 million or slightly more fatalities. The highest estimation was given by Catharina Sturzenegger, a Swiss activist who had spent most of the war in Serbia. She accepted as accurate the data from the journal La Serbie that the Kingdom of Serbia had lost 1  330 925 persons, that is to say one third of its pre-war population7.

8The third element of war memories is related to the mass destruction of Serbia’s infrastructure and industry, which was never again fully repaired and has profoundly weakened the Serbian economy in the decades to come.

9The fourth element is related to the parallel military struggle for national survival and the diplomatic efforts for the formation of a common state of South Slavs that took place at the end of the Great War, marked by the merging of Serbia into the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (Kingdom of Yugoslavia after 1929).

  • 8 See also Mitrović 2007; Le Moal 2008.

10The Great War ended for Serbia with the unification of not only the Serbs from former Austria-Hungary, but their kindred South Slav nations from the Yugoslav provinces of Austria-Hungary (Croats and Slovenes) as well. Thus, the First World War was perceived by most of the Serbs, together with two previous Balkan Wars in 1912-1913, as a prelude to the war with the Central Powers, as the greatest Serbian victory since the period of its medieval grandeur and ascendency of the Serbian Empire in the Balkans in the middle of the xivth century, and the fulfilment of almost all of her national aspirations set in modern times8.

11Since 1918, the testimonies of various war participants, generals and other military commanders were focused mostly on wartime military campaigns, famous battles, strategic decisions, on suffering and resurrection, which marked the three phases of the Great War in Serbia: 1) the spectacular military victories in 1914; 2) defeat in late 1915 and the “Albanian Golgotha” (retreat through snowy Albanian mountains) and transfer to the Greek island of Corfu; 3) the resurrection of the Serbian army at the Salonika Front and the final breakthrough (1916-1918).

12Testimonies left by the Serbian political elite were mostly focused on diplomatic negotiations with the representatives of the Entente Powers, on often difficult relations with the Yugoslav Committee, a body of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes from Austria-Hungary that was concentrated on the struggle of unification and, on a lesser scale, on internal strife (“Black Hand” and Serbian Government). The pro-unification elite of the former Yugoslav provinces of the Dual Monarchy were also prolific when describing their own struggle and contribution to the formation of the common Yugoslav state.

  • 9 Bataković 1994, p. 142-150.

13Commemorations were frequent in the interwar period, using the suffering of Serbia as a keystone for national unification in 1918. The memory of the immense war effort was marked in the first postwar decade, when the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was still an unstable state made of various provinces. A new state was conceived as a country of reconciliation: the new kingdom under the dynasty of Karadjordjević officially made by the joint efforts of three tribes (Serbs, Croats and Slovenes) that, despite having three different names, formed a single nation, or a nation in making –a new nation-state soon to be branded as the Yugoslav nation. Thus, the official policy was to integrate former war enemies, despite being pro- or anti-Yugoslav during the Great War into the political, judiciary, administrative and military structures of the new Kingdom still divided by various religious, historical and political traditions9.

The Monuments and the Culture
of Memory

  • 10 One of few Austrian generals of Serb origin, Field Marshall Svetozar Boroević von Bojna, tried at (...)
  • 11 Bataković 2005, p. 269-281.

14From 1918 to 1941, the First World War was perceived quite differently by the Serbs, who had won the war and made unification possible, and, for instance, the Croats, who had accepted unification unenthusiastically as a solution against Hungarian and Italian pretensions to territories with a predominant Croat population or claimed by the Croats as their own. To Slovenia, the common state was a shield against Italy’s ambition to annex a larger part of it, practically all the way to Ljubljana. The Italians were prevented from entering both Dalmatia and Slovenia by prompt action of the Serbian army, which the Italians dared not attack because it was a member of the victorious Entente camp and an ally. The new kingdom received into its army ranks many higher- and lower-ranking officers of the defeated Austro-Hungarian army, thereby providing them with a status equal to that of the victorious Serbian army, a stable livelihood and a prospect for the future. As time went by, however, various organisations increasingly tended to belittle the efforts to treat the other members of the new Yugoslav state in accordance with the stated policy of reconciliation and tolerance10. By joining the common state with Serbia, the former Austro-Hungarian provinces, above all Croatia and Slovenia but also Bosnia and Herzegovina (primarily its Croat and, to an extent, Muslim parts) were in fact absolved of the crimes committed by local conscripts against Serbs in Serbia and the Dual Monarchy in the course of the Great War; moreover they were exempt from paying war reparations because the Kingdom of Serbia did not act independently at the Paris Peace Conference but as part of the newly created common state, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (SCS)11.

15In areas where Serbs were an absolute or relative majority of the population –in Bosnia, Herzegovina, the former Military Frontier, Vojvodina (Srem, Banat, Bačka, Baranja), Montenegro and Dalmatia, and partially in the North and West of Serbian Macedonia–, memorials were set up in memory of the Serb civilians who had perished in ethnically motivated pogroms and of the fallen soldiers from Serbia and Montenegro, the other Serb kingdom which had united with Serbia in December 1918 after an overwhelming plebiscite in favour of unification: such memorials could be found all across Europe, in the form of memorial chapels or unassuming obelisks often inscribed with the names of the perished.

16The new political reality that resulted from the Great War was given expression in monuments to the rulers whose active participation in the war had earned them the unquestionable status of heroes: the old king, Peter I Karadjordjević (d. 1921), hailed as “Great Liberator” (fig. 1), and the new king, Alexander Karadjordjević (regent 1914-1921; king 1921-1934), as “Great Unifier”. They were erected as tokens of loyalty and gratitude for the national liberation and unification of Serbs and other South Slavs from Austria-Hungary.

Fig. 1 — King Peter I of Serbia.

Fig. 1 — King Peter I of Serbia.

French poster (1915).

17King Peter I, although de facto in retirement after having transferred royal powers to his younger son Alexander in June 1914, was still very popular; in spite of his very advanced age, he had come to the front line during the Battle of the Kolubara (November-December 1914) to raise the spirits of exhausted Serbian troops, and was greeted with enthusiasm. King Peter I the Liberator was given huge monuments in eastern Bosnia (Bijeljina, 1927-1937), Banat (Pančevo, 1932-1933, fig. 2; and Bečkerek, later renamed Petrograd after him, 1926); in Montenegro, apart from a smaller number of more modest monuments (busts) erected in his honour, a coastal town was named after him: Petrovac on Sea (Petrovac na moru).

Fig. 2 — Monument to the Great Liberator, King Peter I Karadjordjević in Pančevo.

Fig. 2 — Monument to the Great Liberator, King Peter I Karadjordjević in Pančevo.
  • 12 Eylan 1935; Pavlović 2010.

18An impressive monument to King Alexander, commander-in-chief of the Serbian army during the war, was set up in his birth town, Cetinje, the former capital of Montenegro, where his exiled father, the future King Peter I, had found refuge with his father-in-law, Prince Nikola I Petrović Njegoš, and where all of his siblings had been born. Monuments to King Alexander, sometimes equestrian, a sword in hand, were later erected in Niš, Sombor, Skoplje (along with a monument to King Peter), Ljubljana, Vukovar, Herceg Novi, Dubrovnik, Ohrid and many other places. At first, King Alexander was celebrated as victor and unifier. After October 1934, when he was assassinated in Marseilles, he was venerated as a martyr king who had died a chivalrous death in defence of the unity of Yugoslavia12.

  • 13 King Alexander conferred the Order of the Star of Karageorge with Swords on the village of Prnjavo (...)
  • 14 Detailed list in: Subotić et al. 2005-2006.

19In Serbia itself, memorials bearing Serbian national symbols were set up to Serbian soldiers and civilians by war veterans, often with the support of state or local authorities: from the obelisk at Gučevo with the coat-of-arms of Serbia to the memorial to the victims of the occupying force’s ruthless persecution, such as the ossuary at Prnjavor in Mačva built in 1922 to house the bones of 535 victims, mostly civilian; the international public was informed of the Austro-Hungarian war crimes in Prnjavor by Rodolphe Archibald Reiss, a forensic expert from Lausanne13. Six years later a monumental memorial to the thousands of Serbian soldiers fallen in the Battle of Cer (also known as the Battle of the Yadar or the Battle of the Drina) was erected in the village of Tekeriš, the site of fiercest fighting in August 1914 when the numerically stronger Austro-Hungarian forces had been pushed back into eastern Bosnia across the Drina. The memorial in the form of a stone crypt with Serbian national symbols was consecrated on the 28th of June 1928, the day of the Battle of Kosovo, to emphasise the heroism comparable to the heroism Prince Lazar and Miloš Obilić had shown against the Ottoman forces of Sultan Murad I on the Field of Kosovo near Priština in 1389. The 10.5 metres tall Tekeriš memorial with a large Serbian cross, a double-headed eagle with a laurel wreath in its beak and the inscription: “Your deeds are immortal!” was unveiled by King Alexander himself. The monument is still a focus of pilgrimage for those who honour the memory of the First World War. Alongside the bones of about 3 500 Serbian soldiers there rest in the crypt the bones of their enemies, mostly Czechs killed by Austro-Hungarians while trying to defect to the Serbian side during the battle that was fought from the 16th to the 20th of August 191414.

  • 15 More in: Bataković, Popović 1989. See also: Desmazes, Naoumovitch 1928.

20In 1929, on the site known as Mačkov Kamen, located on the top of Mount Jagodnja, a memorial ossuary was inaugurated to the 800 soldiers fallen in the second Austro-Hungarian invasion launched in the autumn of 1914. It bears the inscription: “Fatherland to fallen heroes!” and verses of Vojislav Ilić the Younger which for the first time referred not only to Serbs but also to Yugoslavs as those who should honour the sacrifice made. The strategic withdrawal of the Serbian army towards the river Kolubara had led the Austro-Hungarians to believe that they were on the brink of a great victory, especially after the fall of Belgrade. The outcome of their second invasion was, however, the opposite: the Serbs won a victory on the Kolubara (near Mount Suvobor). The remains of the fallen, both known and unknown, were interred in the crypt beneath the memorial church of St. Nicholas in Lazarevac. Among the participants of the Battle of the Kolubara were 1 300 young corporals, mostly university students whose training in Skoplje was cut short –they were sent to reinforce the exhausted Serbian troops ahead of their counteroffensive which took the Austro-Hungarians by surprise and brought a turn in the fortune of war. The church in Lazarevac remains the site of commemoration of the unexpectedly victorious Battle of the Kolubara (November-December 1914), which ended in the expulsion of the invaders from Serbia15.

21It should be noted that in all of western Serbia, which had borne the brunt of two Austro-Hungarian invasions in the second half of 1914, smaller local communities usually marked the sites of suffering and death by setting up plaques inscribed with the names of victims in local Orthodox churches or churchyards rather than by erecting hardly affordable monuments. After all, annual commemorations were unimaginable without a priest, and such lists of frequently only civilian victims, and entire families with children, killed in Austro-Hungarian reprisals in 1914, were the usual solution in all places where there had been many casualties even if there had been no major battles.

  • 16 Mitrović 1987.

22During the three-year occupation of Serbia (November 1915-November 1918), the occupying forces committed many crimes against the civilian population. In brutal Bulgarian reprisals that ensued after the so-called Toplica Uprising (Toplički ustanak) raised in areas South and West of Niš in 1917 whole villages were burnt down, women and elderly killed, and thousands of local people taken to internment camps. Apart from small memorials and ossuaries in churches or on sites of great crimes all across south-eastern Serbia, a large monument to the leader of the Toplica Rebellion, Kosta Vojnović, was erected in 1940 in the village of Grgure where he had been captured and executed in December 191716.

A Shift after 1929: From Serbia’s Suffering to Yugoslav Unity

  • 17 More in: Dragnich 1983.

23A significant shift in the attitude towards the Serbian casualties of the First World War took place after the 6th January of 1929 when King Alexander, concerned about mounting interethnic tension, banned nationally-oriented political parties, declared a new Yugoslav nation instead of the three-named people (Croats, Serbs and Slovenes) and changed the name of the state to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The immediate reason was a serious shooting incident in the National Assembly by a Montenegrin member of Parliament (MP) who left two Croatian MPs dead and three wounded, including the influential leader of the Croatian Peasant Party Stjepan Radić who succumbed a couple of months later. The formal reason was some Croatian MPs’ persistent mocking of Serbian MPs’ speeches which underscored Serbia’s losses suffered in the Great War and the too dearly paid freedom. Communists and ultra-nationalists promptly designated the king’s personal regime as dictatorship; it came to an end in 1931 by the enactment of a new constitution and partial restoration of political freedoms17.

  • 18 More details in: Pavlović 2007.

24Commemoration of the Great War was gradually transformed into the celebration of new Yugoslav unity. Memorials to fallen soldiers and festivities in the King’s honour assumed a markedly Yugoslav character, and the history of Serbia began to be depicted as the road inexorably leading to the creation of Yugoslavia and the unified Yugoslav nation. The first sign of a redefined culture of memory was the memorial at Mačkov Kamen (where Croats and Slovenes had fought, but on the side of the enemy) where Serbian casualties were honoured in verse as the beginning of the struggle for Yugoslavia18.

25The ideological shift from commemorating Serbian casualties to celebrating the victory that had led to the creation of Yugoslavia was perhaps most obvious in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia and Yugoslavia. One of the most frequently bombarded cities during the Great War, Belgrade was awarded the prestigious Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur for the heroic resistance of its defenders. The decoration was presented by the French Marshall Louis Franchet d’Espèrey. The central monument to military casualties fallen in the defence of the capital in 1914-1918 goes back to 1921. It is a monumental, nearly twenty-metre tall structure topped by the statue of the victorious Serbian soldier with a rifle, a flag and the broken shackles of enslavement (fig. 3). At its bottom, below the coat-of-arms of Serbia, lies the deadly wounded Austrian eagle. Contrary to expectations, the monument was not set up in downtown Belgrade, but in the New Cemetery (Novo groblje). At its base is a crypt which houses the bones of 3 529 identified and 1 074 unidentified defenders, as well as the subsequently interred remains of soldiers from Belgrade fallen in the Balkan Wars. The memorial, built from the contributions by members of the Association of Reserve Officers and Soldiers and the city funds, was completed in 1931 and dedicated on Armistice Day, 11 November, in the presence of King Alexander and many distinguished guests. In 1926, the remains of Field Marshall Radomir Putnik, the popular army Minister and Chief of the general staff 1914-1916, who had died in Nice, France, in 1917, were transferred to the marble chapel in the middle of the alley leading from the cemetery gate to the memorial to the defenders of Belgrade built at the instigation of veterans associations and citizens.

Fig. 3 — Monument to Serbian defenders of Belgrade 1914-1918.

Fig. 3 — Monument to Serbian defenders of Belgrade 1914-1918.
  • 19 The only two exceptions are a monument to guerilla leader Vojin Popović Vuk, that covers his milit (...)

26A central-city location was intended for a monument to the Victor (Pobednik) commissioned after the Balkan Wars to honour Serbia’s victories over the Ottoman Empire in the South. It was designed by the Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović, one of the closest friends of King Alexander. However, the forteen-metre tall male nude of classical inspiration with a dove in one hand and a sword in the other, completed before the outbreak of the Great War, was judged as inappropriate, depersonalised and lacking the expected Serbian national symbols. Eventually, after much public protest, above all from veterans’ and women’s associations, it was given a location within the fortress of Belgrade and was set up facing the North, towards the defeated Vienna across the Sava and Danube rivers. Its new setting, amid a large empty space, took away some of its monumentality. There is no inscription or other indication that the monument commemorates the Great War. Still, it is one of the most frequented landmarks by tourists visiting Belgrade and its fortress. The Victor was unveiled in 1928, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the major breakthrough made on the Salonika (Macedonian) Front. So, the centre of Belgrade was left without a major Great War memorial19.

  • 20 Ignjatović 2006.

27A third First World War memorial in the Belgrade area is the Monument to the Unknown Hero. It sits on the top of Mount Avala, some 20 kilometres South of the centre of the city (fig. 4). Markedly monumental, it was meant to promote the ideology of integral Yugoslavism and to present the creation of Yugoslavia as the result of the joint effort of all peoples from the provinces that had become part of it. Yet another work by Ivan Meštrović, the monument, with its caryatides clad in folk costumes, colossal female figures symbolising women from “Bosnia, Montenegro, Dalmatia, Croatia, Slovenia, Banat, Serbia and South Serbia”, was meant to extol Yugoslavia and Yugoslav unification as the ultimate goal of the Great War. The mausoleum, accessed by a ninety-three-metre long flight of stairs, is 14.5 metres tall and 36 metres long. Its construction was financed by King Alexander from his personal funds, and he laid the foundation stone on St. Vitus Day (28 June) 1934. At the top of the sarcophagus is the inscription “ALEXANDER I KING OF YUGOSLAVIA TO THE UNKNOWN HERO” and, on the opposite side, the year of completion (1938)20.

Fig. 4 — Monument to the Unknown Hero at Avala.

Fig. 4 — Monument to the Unknown Hero at Avala.

Commemorating Serbia in Exile:
Corfu, Vido and Salonika

  • 21 Bataković 2004. See also Krizman 1989.

28Most of the Serbia’s First World War memorials outside Serbia are located in Greece, followed by French Africa –Tunisia (Bizerte) and Algeria. In early 1915, France de facto occupied the island of Corfu in then neutral Greece so as to accommodate the exiled Serbian army. About 150 000 Serbian soldiers transferred by Allied transports were warmly received by the local Greek population of less than 100 000 and the firm ties of friendship established then continue to be nurtured by annual commemorations. From April 1916 until November 1918, Corfu in fact served as the war capital of Serbia, replacing Niš (July 1914-November 1915). After the deployment of the Serbian soldiers to the Salonika Front, there remained in Corfu the aged King Peter I, the government and members of the National Assembly of Serbia. It was there that in July 1917 the well-known Corfu Declaration announcing the creation of a common state of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, that is Yugoslavia, was agreed with the representatives of the Yugoslav Committee21.

  • 22 Barby 1916; Jones 1916; Ferri-Pisani 1916; Labry 1916; Thomson 1916; Boppe 1917; Ripert d’Alauzier(...)

29An emphatically Yugoslav dimension also marked the memorial to the Serbian soldiers who, after the withdrawal across the inhospitable Albanian mountains in the harsh winter of 1915-1916, died in Corfu of exhaustion, undernourishment and various diseases, mostly dysentery and typhus. Those were mostly young recruits, ravaged by months of starvation and susceptible to all manner of epidemics. The death toll was about 300 young men a day22.

30The central memorial was set up on the small island of Vido, just across the mouth of the port of Corfu, where the sick Serbian soldiers were quarantined (fig. 5). As early as the interwar period, Corfu and Vido became a focus for pilgrimage for Serbs: under Yugoslavia, militaries and high government officials, mostly Serb, associations of veterans and descendants attended annual commemorations held in this sacred place of Serbian suffering. At first the Royal Navy of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes had a cross set up in Vido in memory of the deceased Serbian soldiers, and the two islands were frequently visited by its ships. The grandest commemoration, held in 1929, was attended by Admiral Prica on behalf of the Royal Yugoslav Navy, and by his Greek counterpart, Admiral Toumbas. In 1936-1938, a memorial was erected to a design by the Russian-born Yugoslav architect Nikolai Krasnov. The crypt underneath the memorial houses the remains of 1 232 identified and 1 532 unidentified Serbian soldiers. In addition to the Yugoslav coat-of-arms, the memorial bears the typical inscription of the period of integral Yugoslavism: “Yugoslavia to Serbian soldiers.”

Fig. 5 — Monument at the Island of Vido, near Corfu.

Fig. 5 — Monument at the Island of Vido, near Corfu.
  • 23 Dornis 1918.

31Of the 7 000/8 000 soldiers who died in Vido in the winter and early spring of 1916, more than 5 000 were buried under the waves of the blue Ionian Sea. One of the best-known and most popular poems about the Serbian war ordeal, The Blue Tomb (Plava grobnica) by Milutin Bojić, who died himself in Salonika in 1917 at the age of twenty-five, has been required reading in the elementary and secondary schools in Serbia ever since the 1920s23. It is dedicated to the soldiers buried in Corfu waters. Thousands of Serb visitors, school excursions, representatives of the Association of Veterans and Descendants, of Serbia’s Armed Forces and high government officials, come every year to pay their respect to this by now legendary site of martyrdom by throwing wreaths into the sea around Corfu to the sound of the Serbian national anthem and verses of Milutin Bojić. The tour of pilgrimage includes a visit to the memorial in Vido and the Museum of the First World War in the town of Corfu (Serbian House, opened only in 1993) which offers a permanent display based on wartime documents, photographs and related objects.

  • 24 Todorović 1971; Saramandić 2006.

32There are other Serbian monuments in Corfu, such as the monument to the deceased soldiers of the Drina Division at Agios Mattheos, 30 kilometres south of the town of Corfu, which bears the inscription: “Drina Division soldiers to their comrades from the wars with Austria-Hungary, Germany and Bulgaria 1914-15-16.” Some 27 smaller memorials to deceased soldiers are scattered throughout Corfu, at locations where individual divisions were accommodated, while other memorial markers, mostly plaques commemorating the Great War and Greco-Serbian friendship, were set up after the Second World War at the instigation of First World War veterans associations. Despite the great importance of Corfu and Vido for the “culture of memory” in Serbia, and among the Serbs in general, this tradition has remained unknown to most Greeks, who otherwise rightly see Serbs as a brotherly nation and Greece’s best friend in the region24.

  • 25 Opačić 1979, with the list of burried soldiers.

33Second to, or at least as important as, Corfu in importance was, and still is, the Serbian military cemetery in Salonika where initially about 7 400 Serbian soldiers, whose remains had been collected from battlefields on the Salonika Front during the 1920s, were buried. Over time, the remains of some were repatriated by families, so that now there are about 5  000 graves. The cemetery was established in 1920, and it also has French, Italian, British and Russian sections. The Greek government donated land for the cemetery and exempted the construction material shipped from Serbia from all custom duties and other taxes. Construction of the main chapel in the Serbian medieval style with an ossuary beneath, flanked by regular rows of graves, began in 1933, and it was consecrated on Armistice Day in 1936. Since the cemetery arose on the site of an olive grove where a central Serbian field hospital had operated during the war, its popular name, which fell in disuse in Greece, but is still used by Serbs, is zejtinlik/zeitenlik, from the Turkish word for olive (zeyten). An unmarked box in the crypt holds the remains of Colonel Dragutin T. Dimitrijević Apis, leader of the conspiratorial military organisation “Unification or Death” (Black Hand), sentenced to death in a show trial for the attempted assassination of Prince Regent Alexander and executed by firing squad in Salonika in 191725.

34Ever since the interwar period, many delegations of various associations (including Franco-Serbian associations that cultivate the memory of valiant traditions of the Great War), school excursions and individuals from Serbia keep coming to Greece year after year, usually visiting Corfu, Vido and the Serbian military cemetery in Salonika. There is hardly any family in Serbia that does not have a forebear who was in Corfu or in Salonika, which is one motive more for remembering the glorious days of Serbian victories. Serbian tourists spending their summer vacations in the Chalcidice or in the surroundings of Salonika do not fail to visit the Zeitenlik cemetery, whose keepers are descendants of a Serbo-Greek family.

  • 26 More in: Laffan 1918.

35While Vido, the “island of death” as it was called by Serbian soldiers, remains a symbol of Serbian suffering and death, the military cemetery in Salonika is more of a symbol of the rebirth of the Serbian army and its sacrifice for the final Allied victory26.

  • 27 Petrović 2007.

36Even though a number of monuments and memorials were erected to the casualties of the Great War, priority was given to those which promoted the new Yugoslav ideology as the natural result of the Serbian struggle for the freedom and unification of Serbs and Yugoslavs, that is to say the other South Slavs from Austria-Hungary. Most First World War veterans did not enjoy any particular support of the royal Yugoslavia. Especially vulnerable were the war disabled who were incapacitated for work. Without a state pension and symbolic social support, they depended on their own organizations for mutual support and many could be seen begging in front of churches. This gross injustice was unofficially explained by the fact that any financial support by the state would also have to include the former enemy soldiers, which would have been too heavy a burden for the public purse27.

  • 28 Ratni Pomenik 1937.

37Some 4 000 members of the Association of the Recipients of the Order of the Star of Karageorge with Swords (Udruženje nosilaca Karadjordjeve zvezde sa mačevima), a decoration awarded to the bravest, were granted a symbolic financial support, while more than 60  000 members of the Association of the Recipients of the Albanian Commemorative Medal (Udruženje nosilaca Albanske spomenice) enjoyed only moral prestige. The publication of the monthly of the Association of Former Soldiers (Ratni pomenik) which ceased after only five years (1937-1941), was funded by the membership, mostly well-to-do high-ranking officers, both active and retired, by subscription and an occasional advertisement, and its contributors worked for free28. The monthly brought wartime commanders’ stories about the bravery and hardships of their peers or common soldiers, speeches delivered by distinguished commanders at commemorations of victorious and tragic events (Cer, Mačkov kamen, Suvobor etc.). It informed about all new, usually modest, monuments with the names of military or civilian casualties set up all over Serbia at the instigation of local authorities or former soldiers. In keeping with popular tradition, individual monuments to fallen soldiers were set up by the roadside, near their homes, or to mark the site where several had lost their lives. These monuments, known as krajputaši (literally, “road-siders”), featured a carved and painted figure of a soldier and an inscription specifying the place and manner of his death.

  • 29 Ratni pomenik 1940, p. 2-3.
  • 30 Bataković 1994, p. 174-180.

38As early as 1940, Ratni pomenik calls attention, not without exasperation, to the fact that twenty years after the creation of the common state of the three-named people (Serbs, Croats and Slovenes) the very survival of Yugoslavia is at stake, whereby the enormous loss of life and suffering sustained by Serbs has been made meaningless29. Former soldiers in 1940 could see Croat separatism having been given official legitimacy by the creation of the Banovina of Croatia as a corpus separatum within the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1939 and, on the other hand, the Serbs ideologically discordant and politically sharply opposed among themselves, offering a weak or no response to overt separatist sentiments harboured, apart from Croats, by some minorities (for example Hungarian, German, Bulgarian, Albanian)30.

Literature: Apocalypse, Martyrdom and Resurrection

  • 31 Nušić 1963.
  • 32 Ibid.

39Similarly to the trends in the practice of commemorating the Great War with monuments, Serbian literature of the time also shows a division into two types of stories and novels. One, motivated by personal tragedies, suggested that the new, common state turned out to be unworthy of the enormous military and civilian losses sustained. Branislav Nušić, the famous Serbian comedy writer, paid tribute to his son killed in the war with the novel Nineteenth Fifteen: the Tragedy of a Nation (1921)31. Drawing on his diary notes, Nušić weaves a captivating, poignantly realistic account of the retreat of the army through central Serbia and Kosovo, with the king, the government, parliament members and an endless river of refugees, with all elements evoking an unprecedented mass suffering and death. Against the backdrop of the retreat before the Austro-German forces and the Bulgarian army –which, upon entering southern Serbia, committed war crimes against civilians in the area bounded by Skoplje, Priština and Peć– Nušić depicts individual destinies of common people and soldiers, both young, inexperienced conscripts and officers. The epic exodus ended with more than one hundred thousand deaths. Nušić believed that the arduous trek through Albania which had begun in November 1915 deserved a book of its own. One of his motives was the idea that self-sacrifice for the sacred cause of national freedom and unification had its moral and spiritual justification32:

The pain of a people is the fire in which its strength hardens […]. You have to live, because in the pain that is in you resides a great thought, and this thought must not die but, on the contrary, bathed with our blood and our tears, it must rise high, clearer, purer still…

  • 33 Petrović 1961.
  • 34 Ibid.
  • 35 Džadžić, Marković 1961.

40Nušić does not describe the whole 1915 tragedy of the people who, enduring the agony of hunger, disease and attacks by hostile Albanian tribes, trekked snow-laden mountain paths on foot to get to the Adriatic coast where French and other Allied ships waited for them. The Albanian Golgotha, rightly described as an apocalyptic journey of biblical proportions, was the subject of the novel of Rastko Petrović The Sixth Day33. Unlike Nušić, a traditionalist and realist, Petrović was a member of the interwar avant-garde. His narrative, in the vein of James Joyce or Aldous Huxley, is painted in the dark tones of a universal human tragedy and in a manner which, particularly in the first part of the book, does not tend to correspond to the perception of the Great War as a heroic epic which prevailed among the Serbian public in the interwar period. In his subjective and pessimistic perspective, the historical and factual gives way to a cataclysmic, almost biblical drama –hence the title alluding to the verse from the Genesis: “And there was evening, and there was morning, the sixth day” –and there is no place for national and patriotic fervour. Petrović’s personally toned view of the arduous Albanian journey results in a work of extraordinary literary power, showing man in battle with nature and his own primordial instincts in a desperate wish to survive. The Sixth Day did not pass a sort of informal censorship in the 1930s. It underwent various alterations and was first published in a serial form in a literary magazine in 1955-1956, and did not appear in one volume until 196134. This powerful novel, however, has not met with the expected public response, remaining almost unnoticed till this day. In addition to this work, it is particularly interesting to see how Petrović spoke in 1942, in the third person, of his experience from retreating through Albania35.

  • 36 Crnjanski 1921
  • 37 Ibid.; french translation: Tsernianski 1991. A detailed analysis in Džadžić 1995.
  • 38 Josić Višnjić 1994.
  • 39 Mostly Croat perspective on Serbian post-war literature and its lost generation is available in Wa (...)

41Yet another work of exceptional literary merit is the short novel of Miloš Crnjanski The Journal of Čarnojević (1921)36, a melancholy string of episodes evoking the absurdity of war as such and the ordeal of the Serbs from Vojvodina, the Banat in particular. Recruited into the Austro-Hungarian army, they were killed in scores on the Italian Front, while dreaming of the victory of their fellow Serbs from Serbia. Through the biography of a Čarnojević, Crnjanski is reliving his own traumatic experience from the trenches of Galicia and Italy: “Overwhelmed with memories, I am noting them down for those who used to burn in the fire of life, and who are utterly disappointed”37. “The hero of The Journal of Čarnojević, M. Josić Višnjić writes, mocks the black-and-yellow monarchy that is falling apart in marshlands and trenches, in the war, by dreaming of his death. Death just like that”38. Unmatched in its literary power, this “little great work” has remained one of the highest peaks of Serbian literature, a markedly subjective testimony about the devastating consequences of war seen as a massive slaughter. Many other post-war poets and writers throughout the Yugoslav provinces shared the similar feeling of disillusion and disappointment39.

  • 40 Ideje za književnost 1934. See also Manojlović 1997.

42Similarly to Miloš Crnjanski, another great of Serbian literature and future Nobel laureate, Ivo Andrić, who, as a supporter of Young Bosnia, spent most of the war in internment (Ex Ponto, 1920, meditative prose), summed up the sentiments of his “lost generation” in an interview he gave on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the Great War40:

The year 1914 mowed us down and dispersed us, in such a way and to such an extent that we could never again get together and stand back on our feet. The best of us died, in dungeons or in trenches. No one betrayed or let down. I don’t know […] what we can do to honour them as they deserve… With every new day, the great event of our youth becomes brighter and more legendary, but also more distant and more incomprehensible… In that way, we also become ever more lonely and incomprehensible… None of us can resist a particular melancholy, cannot help having more compassion for our deaths than for our lives, and for our years of bitter struggle and suffering more than for the years of joy and leisure. The fiera melancholia that Torquato Tasso sings about. The melancholy of the generation whose lot was to turn the helm of history.

  • 41 French translation: Tsernianski 1999.
  • 42 Crnjanski 2008: In Memory of Princip, p. 15; commentary on Vienna, Sarajevo 1914, Princip and afte (...)

43The main symbol of this lost generation which had sacrificed itself for the ideal of national freedom, and Serbian and Yugoslav unification, was Gavrilo Princip. Crnjanski’s book of poetry and meditative prose Lyrics of Ithaka, and later on published shortly after the war (1919) includes a poem titled In Memory of Princip. It celebrates him as a hero of the enslaved and disempowered, determined to sacrifice himself for social and national freedom, but it also reveals the poet’s disappointment with the post-war social climate where he arrives as a weary warrior who had barely survived the horrors of war41. It is particularly interesting to read Crnjanski’s own commentary on the poem in Ithaca and Commentaries, because the news of the assassination in Sarajevo had reached him in Vienna42.

  • 43 Djordjić 2010.

44The social aspect of the Great War, the ordinary man lost in the maelstrom of a global conflict, was the topic of Dragiša Vasić, a lawyer. As a reserve officer, he took part in the Battle of the Kolubara and the defence of Belgrade, and crossed Albania. Vasić emerged from the war with the rank of captain first class, two scars and widowed; his wife had died in 1917. His novel Red Mists (Crvene magle, 1922) and, especially, the collection of stories titled Extinguished Icon Lamps (Utuljena kandila, 1922) bring some of the best portraits of urban and rural lower-class people, for the majority of whom the war was nothing but misery. With less vividness but in a more modern narrative style wrote Stanislav Krakov. His prose was described by Rastko Petrović43:

Stanislav Krakov saw war: more than any other author our or foreign one. He was a young man who practically grew up in the war. […] Back then, he not only saw a man dying next to him but he himself had to lead people there where death strikes at every instant. Nowhere is the encounter with people so sublime and tragic as it is on the elementary level of life and death.

45In contrast to the tragic dimension of both the national and universal human catastrophe evoked by Nušić, Petrović, Crnjanski, Vasić and Krakov, the Serbian Trilogy (1937) by Stevan Jakovljević, a biologist and university professor who fought, as a reserve officer, in all major battles from Cer to Kajmakčalan and Dobro Polje, celebrates the victorious spirit of Serbian history. His three-volume novel is a documentary, often anecdotic, prose about the struggle of the ordinary man for freedom, about different mentalities and character traits of Serbian soldiers whose destiny he follows from the outbreak of the war until the breakthrough on the Salonika Front. Jakovljević collected frontline stories that circulated among soldiers and conveyed them without any literary embellishment, in the manner of a documentarist and memoirist. The third volume of the trilogy, The Gate of Freedom, is devoted to everyday trials faced by the Serbian regular soldiers and volunteers on the Salonika Front. With the border of the still occupied Serbia almost within reach, they all shared an irrepressible desire to return to their homes as soon as possible. The portrayal of the simple nature of the Serbian peasant, now in uniform, ready for whatever sacrifice, fearless in battle but humane towards the captured Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian soldiers, was meant to show that the creation of the common state, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, was the cause worth fighting and sacrificing for.

  • 44 Jakovljević 1937; see also Manojlović 1997, p. 127-128.

46Jakovljević does not glorify the Serbs as a “warrior nation”, which is an international stereotype that took root after the Balkan Wars; but rather he emphasises the simplicity and spontaneous democratism of the Serbian peasant, jealous of his political freedoms acquired after the overthrow of the autocratic regime in 1903. He perceptively notes down how Serbian soldiers, on Easter, left their trenches to engage in a friendly conversation with the enemy, in a sort of mutual understanding for the observance of religious traditions, but he brings it more as an anecdote illustrative of Serbian mentality than as an anti-war protest. One of his countless characters, on the other hand, claims that the war has a “class and ethnic” dimension which, however, will disappear once the division into classes and nations disappears. After the establishing of communism in Yugoslavia in 1945, the author’s closeness to the Titoist regime made it possible for the Serbian Trilogy to see many editions and, despite its literary shortcomings, it partly paved the way for a positive evaluation of Serbia’s role in the Great War, finally fixing the public perception of the whole war period44.

Great War in the Age of Yugoslav Communism (1945-1990)

  • 45 Bataković 1992 and 1997.

47After the establishing of communist dictatorship in Yugoslavia in 1945, the previous historical periods began to be measured by their contribution to the historical one-way path “inevitably” leading towards communism, which was officially presented as the final stage of history. “History begins with us”, that is to say in 1945, was a frequent slogan of communist leaders and ideologists both in culture and in historiography. However, given that, upon the outbreak of the Great War, Lenin had described the struggle of Serbia and Montenegro as a just, defensive war of liberation against Austro-Hungarian aggression and imperialism, that is to say as a positive historical process, the 1914-1918 period was tacitly tolerated by the communists, remaining deeply in the shadow of important dates of the communist-led antifascist struggle of the 1941-1945 period45.

48Some of the officers and soldiers who had fought in the Great War joined the communist forces under Tito, while most of the others joined the other anti-Nazi movement, the royalist resistance movement of the Yugoslav Home Army under General Draža Mihailović. Upon the 1944 Soviet-led liberation of Belgrade, the 90-year-old Serbian Field Marshal (vojvoda) Petar Bojović, one of the architects of the 1918 Salonika Front breakthrough, was exposed to humiliation and beating, and eventually succumbed, at the hands of a group of Josip Broz Tito’s partisans intent on seizing his modest house in downtown Belgrade.

49The fact that the communist dictator Tito had fought on the opposite side, in a division of the Austro-Hungarian army which was responsible for many war crimes in western Serbia during the two 1914 campaigns, remained hidden from the broader public until Tito’s death in 1980. The official version was that Tito had fought on the Eastern Front, was captured by the Russians and eventually joined the 1917 Russian Revolution.

  • 46 Mitrovića 1964.
  • 47 Ibid. March on the Drina has outlived the First World War and remains one of the most popular Serb (...)

50One of the rare examples of artistic commemoration of Serbia’s victories of 1914 was the film Marš na Drinu (March on the Drina), the only of about one thousand motion pictures filmed after 1945 that was devoted to Serbia’s role in the Great War (fig. 6)46. Directed by Žika Mitrovića in 1964, carefully put together in such a way as to evoke the team effort of officers and common soldiers regardless of differences in rank and mentality, it depicts the resistance put up by an artillery unit of the Combined Division of the Serbian army which managed to repel the Austro-Hungarian offensive on Cer at the dear price of the lives of almost the entire battery. What added to the popularity of this perhaps the most-watched Serbian movie honouring the heroism and comradeship in resisting a much stronger enemy is the soundtrack number The March on the Drina. It was composed by Stanislav Binički in Valjevo in late 1914 in honour of the victory at the Battle of Cer, while the appropriate lyrics were added only fifty years later, for the film47. The film was the first veering from the stated communist policy of representing the contributions to the victory in the First World War made by all “nations and nationalities” of Yugoslavia as equal. A book of wartime recollections published by members of the Association of the Recipients of the Albanian Commemorative Medal on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Great War became an important source of a revived awareness of Serbia’s tremendous war effort. A similar collection was published by the Association of 1 300 Corporals, senior high school and university students who, after only a short training in Skoplje, had been sent to the front as reinforcement to the exhausted Serbian troops. They had fought in the front ranks in the Battle of the Kolubara and endured heavy losses.

Fig. 6 — Marš na Drinu (The March on the Drina) film poster (1964).

Fig. 6 — Marš na Drinu (The March on the Drina) film poster (1964).

51In 1970, after a visit the Salonika Front veterans paid to the forgotten Serbian war memorials in Corfu, Vido and Thessaloniki, the Society for Cultivating the Traditions of Serbia’s Wars of Liberation until 1918 was founded in Belgrade: as a result of their initiative, dozens of war memorials were renovated and visits to the sites of battles and ossuary memorials in Serbia, Slavic Macedonia and Greece began to be encouraged. At the invitation of the French Mémorial du Front d’Orient a delegation of the Society attended regularly the Armistice Day commemoration at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, which was followed by a visit to the Serbian military cemetery in Thiais, on the periphery of Paris, the final resting place of 748 Serbian soldiers who had succumbed during medical treatment in France (fig. 7).

Fig. 7 — Serbian Military Cemetery in Thiais, near Paris.

Fig. 7 — Serbian Military Cemetery in Thiais, near Paris.

52Expectedly, however, the Society which assembled the surviving Salonika Front veterans and descendants of the fallen was infiltrated by agents of the communist secret service who took care that the tolerated, purely historical, commemorations should not turn into a glorification of Serbian, largely anti-communist, traditions. It was not until after Tito’s death in 1980, and the ensuing loosening of ideological restraints, that mass pilgrimages became possible: apart from veterans’ delegations, First World War memorials began to be visited by high school excursions, which was a way of acquainting young generations with their country’s authentic traditions.

  • 48 Blic 2014.
  • 49 Bazdulj 2013.

53Unlike the royal authorities of interwar Yugoslavia, the communist authorities had a particular attitude towards Gavrilo Princip and Young Bosnia. Despite the generally accepted view that they had fallen for the ideal of national liberation in the struggle against Austro-Hungarian colonialism, King Alexander sought to avoid any glorification of the Sarajevo assassination because, among other things, of the alleged involvement of some Serbian military officials in the conspiracy, but also in order not to open the way for heated debates over the Kriegsschuldfrage (the question of responsability in the war). In 1921, the remains of Gavrilo Princip were conveyed to Sarajevo. They were seen off from Terezin by thousands of Czechs and Slovaks and, upon entering Yugoslavia, they were paid last respects by thousands of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs. But their arrival in Sarajevo was not a state event as one would have expected. In the communist period, Gavrilo Princip was depicted as a precursor of communism, a fighter for social justice, and, on the whole, was given a much more favourable treatment than in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Two relatively decent movies about Young Bosnia and the Sarajevo assassination were filmed. One of them, shot in the 1960s, offered a stretched interpretation of Young Bosnia as the forerunner of the Second World War communist guerrilla in Bosnia. It was not until the centennial of Great War that Gavrilo Princip won genuine, non-ideological recognition among young generations as a freedom fighter. Graffiti quoting his poem scratched on the wall of his prison cell in Theresienstadt were painted on many buildings across Serbia and monuments to him began to be set up, usually without government support, in many smaller places in Serbia, especially in the North, in Vojvodina, where colonists from Bosnia and Herzegovina had been settled after 1918, and in Pale, in Serb-inhabited Eastern Sarajevo48. It came as a complete shock to the Serbian public when it was recently revealed that, immediately after the fall of Yugoslavia in April 1941, Adolf Hitler was given the memorial plaque dedicated to Gavrilo Princip, taken from Sarajevo, as gift for his birthday49.

  • 50
  • 51 Ibid. Shortened English translation –Ćosić 1978– did not attract many readers, while the French tr (...)

54In the 1970s and early 1980s, the already revived interest in Serbia’s Great War epic flared up after Dobrica Ćosić’s Tolstoy-like four-volume novel A Time of Death became a huge success with the readers50. Ćosić, a communist regime author turned dissident in 1968, covers the first two war years, 1914 and 1915, up to the retreat across Albania, looking at the history of the war in a broader context of modern Serbia’s history. In a somewhat moralising tone, he looks at the relationship between people and authority and, following a series of individual destinies, paints a picture of different hopes and aspirations of different social strata. Especially vivid is his portrayal of a hitherto quite neglected figure, Field Marshal Živojin Mišić, the strategist of the victory at the Kolubara, a man of countryside roots with a profound understanding of the psychology of the Serbian peasant. Thus the author depicts him as an epitome of all moral virtues traditionally cherished by the Serbian people. Against a documentary background (letters, telegrams and other forms of communication between the main civilian and military actors, the government, the General Staff, diplomats), Ćosić reveals a range of dilemmas surrounding Serbia’s war aims, the manner of achieving them and the strategy for Serbia’s relations with the allies51.

  • 52 In the portrayal of the First World War from the perspective of the critique of Yugoslav unificati (...)

55In a subtext, however, Ćosić, obviously disappointed with the subordinate status accorded to the Serbs in Titoist Yugoslavia, raises the question as to whether the results of the Great War were worthy the tremendous sacrifice sustained. The novel also points to the ambivalence underlying Yugoslav unification since it was realised through uniting with peoples who largely felt an allegiance to the Viennese invaders of Serbia. In Ćosić’s interpretation, therefore, Field Marshal Mišić is sceptical about the creation of Yugoslavia pressed for by Crown Prince Alexander, Prime Minister Pašić and party leaders, and emphasises: “The unification of people separated for centuries is only worthwhile if equal shares of blood and bones have been invested in it! And I’m anxious about the unification struggled for by politicians and journalists, poets and professors.” This may be seen as an articulation of Ćosić’s central idea: that Serbs win in war and lose in peace; that they fail to translate their spectacular military successes into tangible political and economic gains in times of peace52.

  • 53 Djurić 1979. The play based on this book was performed nearly 500 times until 1992. Antonije Djuri (...)

56The Battle of the Kolubara, a play prepared for the stage by Borislav Mihailović Mihiz based on the first part of the novel, practically became a cult theatrical production. Unburdened with Ćosić’s dilemmas over the creation of Yugoslavia, it was focused on human drama, the ordeal of a people and its military and political leadership. Testimonies of surviving Salonika Front veterans collected by publicist Antonije Djurić also reached a broad audience, both in the form of a series of books and as a theatrical production Salonika Front veterans speaking: This is how it was!   53.

  • 54 Bataković 1995.

57By the end of the 1980s, Ćosić’s novel saw several editions and was sold in a few hundred thousand copies, giving an impetus to a series of theatrical productions about the First World War. They were perceived as a return to the genuine national traditions as opposed to the rigid attitude of the Titoist regime in the previous decades, when the cult sites of battles, suffering and death were bypassed in favour of the shrines erected to communist casualties. The return to the noble and heroic traditions of the Great War, as a cohesive element of Serbian identity in the xxth century, free of subsequent ideological restrictions and national divisions, was a way of resisting the gloomy realities of life marked by a gradual transformation of post-Titoist communist Yugoslavia from a loose federation into a confederation of rivalling, latently conflicting republics. The abandonment of the idea of Yugoslav unity, legitimised by the last, 1974 Constitution, additionally changed the perspective on Serbia’s role and importance in the First World War54.

58Communist authorities did not look at this return to tradition with a favourable eye. They had for decades sought to present Serbia’s Great War victories as a logical prelude to the social revolution brought about by the communist movement in the Second World War and the Great War itself primarily as the inspiration for the resistance to Nazism and Fascism allegedly embodied only in Tito’s communist guerrilla. On the centennial of the outbreak of the Great War, heated scholarly debates are taking place in Serbia in a bid to debunk the attempts at revisionism in a part of western historiography which conceal the colonial ambitions of the great powers and shift the blame for the war on small Balkan nations. New monuments are being erected, old ones renovated and important dates from the 1914-1918 period duly commemorated. It is only of late that cemeteries and monuments to the tens of thousands of Serbian soldiers who died in captivity in dozens of prison camps in former Austria-Hungary (today in Austria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Romania and Hungary) have been rediscovered and often renovated, and so have been the cemeteries in the former French colonies in North Africa, Tunisia and Algeria. The “culture of memory” seems at long last to have shaken off the rigid ideological restraints which imposed Yugoslavism and communism as binding dogmas for nearly a century.


Adams 1942 = Adams John Clinton, Flight in Winter, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1942.

Apollinaire 1917 = Apollinaire Guillaume, “Les persécutions autrichiennes et bulgares contre la littérature serbe”, Mercure de France, the 16th of October 1917, p. 761.

Barby 1916 = Barby Henry, LÉpopée serbe, Paris, Berger-Levrault, 1916.

Barby 1918 = Barby Henry, Avec l’armée serbe. De l’ultimatum autrichien à l’invasion de la Serbie, Paris, Albin Michel, 1918.

Bataković, Popović 1989 = Bataković Dušan T., Popović Nikola B. (eds), Kolubarska bitka, Belgrade, Litera, 1989.

Bataković 1992 = Bataković Dušan T., “Le génocide dans l’État indépendant croate (1941-1945)”, Hérodote 67 (1992), p. 70-80.

Bataković 1994 = Bataković Dušan T., Yougoslavie. Nations, Religions, Idéologies, Lausanne, L ’Âge d’Homme, 1994.

Bataković 1995 = Bataković Dušan T., “Nationalism and Communism: The Yugoslav Case”, Serbian Studies. The North American Journal for Serbian Studies, 9/1-2 (1995), p. 25-41.

Bataković 1997 = Bataković Dušan T., “Frustrated Nationalism in Yugoslavia: From Liberal to Communist Solution”, Serbian Studies. The North American Journal for Serbian Studies, 11/2 (1997), p. 67-85.

Bataković 2004 = Bataković Dušan T., “Serbia and Greece in the First World War. An Overview”, Balkan Studies, 45/1 (2004), p. 59-80.

Bataković 2005 = Bataković Dušan T. (ed.), Histoire du peuple serbe, Lausanne, L ’Âge d’Homme, 2005.

Bazdulj 2013 = Bazdulj Muharem, “Srećan rodjendan gospodine Hitler”, Vreme, the 31st of October 2013, p. 42-49.

Boppe 1917 = Boppe Auguste, À la suite du gouvernement serbe de Nish à Corfou, Paris, Bossard, 1917.

Božović 2014 = Božović Aleksandar, Memorijali Prvog svetskog rata na teritoriji Beograda, Belgrade, Zavod za zaštitu spomenika kulture grada Beograda, 2014.

Crnjanski 1921 = Crnjanski Miloš, Dnevnik o Čarnojeviću, Belgrade, M. J. Stefanović i drug, 1921.

Crnjanski 2008 = Crnjanski Miloš, Itaka i Komentari, Belgrade/Podgorica, Štamparija Makarije/Oktoih, 2008.

Ćosić 1971-1979 = Ćosić Dobrica, Vreme Smrti, 4 vols., Belgrade, Prosveta, 1971-1979.

Ćosić 1978 = Ćosić Dobrica, A Time of Death, tr. by Muriel Heppell, New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.

Desmazes, Naoumovitch 1928 = Desmazes Marie-Alphonse, Lieutenant-colonel, Naoumovitch Joseph, Commandant, Les Victoires serbes en 1914, preface by M. le Maréchal Joffre, Paris, Berger-Levrault, 1928.

Diehl 1915 = Diehl Charles, “L ’Héroïque Serbie. Grandes leçons d’un petit peuple”, Lecture pour tous, the 1st of February 1915, p. 451-457.

Djordjić 2010 = Djordjić Stojan, “Književna dela o Prvom svetskom ratu. Primer inoviranja i divergencije u evoluciji srpske književnosti tokom 20. veka”, Godišnjak za srpski jezik i književnost, 23/10 (2010), p. 151-161.

Djurić 1979 = Djurić Antonije, Solunci govore: ovako je bilo!, Gornji Milanovac, Kulturni centar, 1979.

Djurić 1987 = Djurić Antonije, Žene solunci govore, Belgrade, Književne novine, 1987.

Dornis 1918 = Dornis Jean, “Un poète serbe : Miloutine Boitch”, Revue des Deux Mondes, 15 May 1918, p. 411-416.

Dragnich 1983 = Dragnich Alex N., The First Yugoslavia. A Search for a Viable Political System, Stanford, Hoover Insitution Press, 1983.

Džadžić, Marković 1961 = Džadžić Petar, Marković Milosav, “Dijalog o ‘Danu šestom’”, Delo 8-9, August-September 1961.

Džadžić 1995 = Džadžić Petar, Povlašćeni prostori Miloša Crnjanskog, Belgrade, Zavod za udžbenike i nastavna sredstva, 1995.

Eylan 1935 = Eylan Claude, La Vie et la Mort d’Alexandre Ier : roi de Yougoslavie, Paris, Grasset, 1935.

Ferri-Pisani 1916 = Ferri-Pisani, Le Drame serbe, octobre 1915-mars 1916, Paris, Perrin, 1916.

Gesemann 1935 = Gesemann Gerhard, Die Flucht: aus einem serbischen Tagebuch, 1915 und 1916, Munich, Albert Langen/Georg Müller, 1935.

Ignjatović 2006 = Ignjatović Aleksandar, “Od istorijskog sećanja do zamišljanja nacionalne tradicije. Spomenik Neznanom junaku na Avali”, in Alexić Dragan et al. (eds), Istorija i sećanje, Belgrade, Institut za noviju istoriju, 2006, p. 229-252.

Jakovljević 1937 = Jakovljević Stevan, Srpska Trilogija, Belgrade, Geca Kon, 1937.

Jones 1916 = Jones Fortier, With Serbia into Exile. An American’s Adventures with the Army that cannot die, New York, The Century, 1916.

Josić Višnjić 1994 = Josić Višnjić Miroslav, Kvartet, Belgrade, Draganić, 1994.

Keegan 1998 = Keegan John, The First World War, London, Hutchinson, 1998.

Krizman 1989 = Krizman Bogdan, Hrvatska u Prvom svjetskom ratu: hrvatsko-srpski politički odnosi, Zagreb, Globus, 1989.

Labry 1916 = Labry Raoul, Avec l’armée serbe en retraite. À travers l’Albanie et le Monténégro, Paris, Perrin, 1916.

Laffan 1918 = Laffan R. G. D., The Guardians of the Gate. Historical Lectures on the Serbs, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1918.

Le Moal 2008 = Le Moal Frédéric, La Serbie: du martyre à la victoire, 1914-1918, Saint-Cloud, Soteca/14-18 éditions, 2008.

Levental 1992 = Levental Zdenko, Rodolphe Archibald Reiss : criminaliste et moraliste de la Grande Guerre, Lausanne, L ’Âge d’Homme, 1992.

Manojlović 1997 = Manojlović Olga, “Umetničke (re) vizije rata. Prvi svetski rat u srpskoj književnosti”, Tokovi Istorije, 2-3 (1997), p. 128-129.

Mitrović 1987 = Mitrović Andrej, Ustaničke borbe u Srbiji, 1916-1918, Belgrade, Srpska književna zadruga, 1987.

Mitrović 2007 = Mitrović Andrej, Serbia’s Great War 1914-1918, London, C. Hurst & Co., 2007.

Nušić 1963 = Nušić Branislav, Devetsto petnaesta: tragedija jednoga naroda, Belgrade, Jež, 1963.

Opačić 1979 = Opačić Petar, Le Front de Salonique. Zeitinlik, Belgrade, Jugoslovenska revija, 1979.

Pavlović 2007 = Pavlović Vojislav, “La mémoire et l’identité nationale : la mémoire de la Grande Guerre en Serbie”, Guerres mondiales et conflits contemporains, 228 (2007), p. 51-60.

Pavlović 2010 = Pavlović Vojislav, “L ’Attentat de Marseille 1934. La fin symbolique d’une alliance atypique”, in Bataković Dušan T. (ed.), La Serbie et la France. Une alliance atypique. Relations politiques, économiques et culturelles 1870-1940, Belgrade, Institut des études balkaniques/Académie serbe des sciences et des arts, 2010, p. 575-595.

Petrović 2007 = Petrović Ljubomir, Nevidljivi geto. Invalidi u Kraljevini Jugoslaviji 1918-1941, Belgrade, Institut za savremenu istoriju, 2007.

Petrović 1961 = Petrović Rastko, Dan šesti, Belgrade, Nolit, 1961.

Popović 1986 = Popović Danko, Knjiga o Milutinu, Belgrade, Književne novine, 1986.

Price 1918 = Price Crawfurd, Serbia’s Part in the War, vol. 1, The Rampart against Pan-Germanism, London, Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co, 1918.

Reiss 1915 = Reiss R. A., How Austria-Hungary Waged War in Serbia: Personal Investigations of a Neutral, Paris, Armand Colin, 1915.

Reiss 1916 = Reiss R. A., Kingdom of Serbia. Report upon the Atrocities Committed by the Austro-Hungarian Army during the First Invasion of Serbia, London, Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co., 1916.

Reiss 1918 = Reiss R. A., Réponses aux accusations austro-hongroises contre les Serbes contenues dans les deux recueils de témoignages concernant les actes de violation du droit des gens commis par les États en guerre avec l’Autriche-Hongrie, Paris/Lausanne, Payot, 1918.

Reiss 1919 = Reiss R. A., The Kingdom of Serbia: Infringements of the Rules and Laws of War Committed by the Austro-Bulgaro-Germans; Letters of a Criminologist on the Serbian Macedonian Front, London, G. Allen & Unwin Ltd. & Simpkin, 1919.

Reiss, Bonnassieux 1919 = Reiss R. A., Bonnassieux A., Réquisitoire contre la Bulgarie, Paris, Grasset, 1919.

Ripert d’Alauzier 1923 = Ripert d’Alauzier de, Lieutenant-Colonel, Un drame historique. La résurrection de l’armée serbe. Albanie-Corfou (1915-1916), Paris, Payot, 1923.

Roksandić 2006 = Roksandić Drago, Svetozar Borojević od Bojne. Lav ili lisica sa Soče?, Zagreb, Vijeće srpske nacionalne manjine grada Zagreba, 2006.

Saramandić 2006 = Saramandić Ljubomir, Hodočašće na Krf, Belgrade, Tetratron, 2006.

Scianna 2012 = Scianna Bastian Matteo, “Reporting Atrocities: Archibald Reiss in Serbia, 1914-1918”, The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, 25/4 (2012), p. 596-617.

Subotić et al. 2005-2006 = Subotić Vojislav et al., Memorijali oslobodilačkih ratova Srbije, 2 vols., Belgrade, Vlada Republike Srbije, Ministarstvo rada, zapošljavanja i socijalne politike, 2005-2006.

Sturzenegger 1920 = Sturzenegger Catharina, Die Wiederauferstehung Serbiens: seine glorreichsten und seine dunklesten Tage: Dokument zur Kriegsführung der vereinigten österr.-ungarischen, deutschen und bulgarischen Armeen nebst einer Anzahl Photographien, Bern/Berlin, Der Freie Verlag, 1920.

Tchossitch 1991 = Tchossitch Dobritsa (Ćosić Dobrica), Le Temps de la mort, 2 vols., Lausanne, L ’Âge d’Homme, 1991.

Thomson 1916 = Thomson Louis Léopold Arthur, La Retraite de Serbie (octobre-décembre 1915), Paris, Hachette, 1916.

Todorović 1971 = Todorović Kosta (ed.), Golgota i vaskrs Srbije 1916-1918, Belgrade, Udruženje nosilaca Albanske spomenice & BIGZ, 1971.

Tsernianski 1991 = Tsernianski Milos, Journal de Tcharnoievitch, tr. and preface by Olga Marković, Lausanne, L ’Âge d’Homme, 1991.

Tsernianski 1999 = Tsernianski Milos, Ithaque. Poèmes et commentaires, Lausanne, L ’Âge d’Homme, 1999.

Wachtel 2008 = Wachtel Andrew, “La Yougoslavie: l’État impossible?”, in Audoin-Rouzeau Stéphane, Prochasson Christophe (eds), Sortir de la Grande Guerre. Le monde et l’après 1918, Paris, Tallandier, 2008, p. 257-277.

Wawro 2014 = Wawro Geoffrey, A Mad Catastrophe. The Outbreak of the World War I and the collapse of the Habsburg Empire, New York, Basic Books, 2014.


* * *


Blic 2014 = “Spomenik Gavrilu Principu otkriven u Istočnom Sarajevu”, Blic, 27 June 2014, [online] URL:

Ideje za književnost 1934 = Ideje za književnost, the 17th of November 1934.

Mitrovića 1964 = Mitrovića Žika, Marš na Drinu (March on the Drina), Belgrade, Avala Film, 1964.

Ratni pomenik 1937 = Ratni pomenik, Nr. 10, Belgrade, December 1937.

Ratni pomenik 1940 = Ratni pomenik, Nr. 11, Belgrade, February 1940.


1 Reiss 1915. More on war suffering in the documented analysis by Dr Rodolphe Archibald Reiss (1875-1929), who was covering Serbia and the Serbian fronts: Reiss 1916. The longest chapter is dedicated to the massacre of civilians, p. 30-146.

2 See more in Scianna 2012.

3 Barby 1918, p. 112-113 (with photos taken on the spot). Very useful and detailed is Price 1918. On the problems that Austro-Hungarian troops experienced in Serbia, see Wawro 2014, p. 137-168.

4 Apollinaire 1917. See also Diehl 1915.

5 See also other comprehensive reports by Reiss 1918; Reiss 1919; Reiss, Bonnassieux 1919; more details in his biography: Levental 1992.

6 Keegan 1998, p. 7.

7 Sturzenegger 1920, p. 7-8, p. 11.

8 See also Mitrović 2007; Le Moal 2008.

9 Bataković 1994, p. 142-150.

10 One of few Austrian generals of Serb origin, Field Marshall Svetozar Boroević von Bojna, tried at some point to join the new army of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes which had already admitted to its ranks a few Croats and Slovenes from the defeated Habsburg army, but met with opposition from a Croatian minister and backed down. Had he been admitted, he would de facto have been equal in rank to four Serbian vojvodas, i.e. Field Marshalls (Radomir Putnik, Stepa Stepanović, Živojin Mišić and Petar Bojović) who had led the Serbian army through the war and to victory. Boroević died disappointed in Klagenfurt in 1920 and, as it seems, the costs of his funeral were covered by the deposed Habsburg emperor Charles I. See Roksandić 2006.

11 Bataković 2005, p. 269-281.

12 Eylan 1935; Pavlović 2010.

13 King Alexander conferred the Order of the Star of Karageorge with Swords on the village of Prnjavor in Mačva area on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of its ordeal: it was the only village in Serbia to be awarded such a high decoration.

14 Detailed list in: Subotić et al. 2005-2006.

15 More in: Bataković, Popović 1989. See also: Desmazes, Naoumovitch 1928.

16 Mitrović 1987.

17 More in: Dragnich 1983.

18 More details in: Pavlović 2007.

19 The only two exceptions are a monument to guerilla leader Vojin Popović Vuk, that covers his military career from 1905 to 1917, and a tiny monument in Karageorge park to the soldiers of third ban. Several more memorial plaques were placed in various city areas, see Božović 2014.

20 Ignjatović 2006.

21 Bataković 2004. See also Krizman 1989.

22 Barby 1916; Jones 1916; Ferri-Pisani 1916; Labry 1916; Thomson 1916; Boppe 1917; Ripert d’Alauzier 1923; Gesemann 1935. See also the excellent survey by Adams 1942.

23 Dornis 1918.

24 Todorović 1971; Saramandić 2006.

25 Opačić 1979, with the list of burried soldiers.

26 More in: Laffan 1918.

27 Petrović 2007.

28 Ratni Pomenik 1937.

29 Ratni pomenik 1940, p. 2-3.

30 Bataković 1994, p. 174-180.

31 Nušić 1963.

32 Ibid.

33 Petrović 1961.

34 Ibid.

35 Džadžić, Marković 1961.

36 Crnjanski 1921

37 Ibid.; french translation: Tsernianski 1991. A detailed analysis in Džadžić 1995.

38 Josić Višnjić 1994.

39 Mostly Croat perspective on Serbian post-war literature and its lost generation is available in Wachtel 2008.

40 Ideje za književnost 1934. See also Manojlović 1997.

41 French translation: Tsernianski 1999.

42 Crnjanski 2008: In Memory of Princip, p. 15; commentary on Vienna, Sarajevo 1914, Princip and aftermath, p. 131-137.

43 Djordjić 2010.

44 Jakovljević 1937; see also Manojlović 1997, p. 127-128.

45 Bataković 1992 and 1997.

46 Mitrovića 1964.

47 Ibid. March on the Drina has outlived the First World War and remains one of the most popular Serbian compositions of the period. Its modernised versions were recorded by, among others, the rock group The Shadows and the James Last Orchestra.

48 Blic 2014.

49 Bazdulj 2013.


Ćosić 1971-1979; vol. I-II, 1971; vol. III, 1975; vol. IV, 1979.

51 Ibid. Shortened English translation –Ćosić 1978– did not attract many readers, while the French translation was a success among readership and critics, comparing Ćosić with Leo Tolstoy and, as stressed by his publisher, with other great novelists of the xxth century: “Ce roman épique raconte la Première Guerre mondiale à la manière dont Tolstoï l’a fait pour l’invasion napoléonienne de la Russie dans Guerre et Paix. Pages inspirées, amour d’un sol, d’une patrie, personnages de premier plan se détachant sur plan collectif d’un peuple tout entier levé dans la résistance: il y a dans ce livre un souffle et une dimension qui le placent parmi les plus grands romans d’épopée de la littérature universelle.” (Tchossitch 1991)

52 In the portrayal of the First World War from the perspective of the critique of Yugoslav unification and the senselessness of sacrificing Serbia’s statehood and people for the sake of uniting with ungrateful Croats and Slovenes literarily the weakest, but widely read, is Popović 1986.

53 Djurić 1979. The play based on this book was performed nearly 500 times until 1992. Antonije Djurić has also collected the testimonies of the female Serb soldiers from the Great War (Djurić 1987).

54 Bataković 1995.

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1 — King Peter I of Serbia.
Crédits French poster (1915).
Fichier image/png, 364k
Titre Fig. 2 — Monument to the Great Liberator, King Peter I Karadjordjević in Pančevo.
Fichier image/png, 396k
Titre Fig. 3 — Monument to Serbian defenders of Belgrade 1914-1918.
Fichier image/png, 535k
Titre Fig. 4 — Monument to the Unknown Hero at Avala.
Fichier image/png, 401k
Titre Fig. 5 — Monument at the Island of Vido, near Corfu.
Fichier image/png, 813k
Titre Fig. 6 — Marš na Drinu (The March on the Drina) film poster (1964).
Fichier image/png, 116k
Titre Fig. 7 — Serbian Military Cemetery in Thiais, near Paris.
Fichier image/png, 522k


Directeur de l’Institute for Balkan Studies, Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts

© École française d’Athènes, 2019

Conditions d’utilisation :

Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search