What the Good Soldier Schweik Knew Then

What the Good Soldier Schweik Knew Then

by Norman Berdichevsky (July 2006)

Unless you happened to catch the 30 second news item on May 22, 2006 on the more internationally oriented networks such as the BBC or CNN, you wouldn’t know that Podgorica is the capital of the newly independent (actually renewed independence after 90 years) state of Montenegro. The independence supporters gained a narrow 55% majority with the aid of many migrant voters returning from abroad. The old “new” country will have a total population of only 700,000 and cut off Serbia from its access to the sea. At the end of the Balkan wars on the eve of World War I, the demand for a union of the Southern Slavs into one “Greater Serbia” (eventually to be called Yugoslavia) was the great cause of all those who set what came to be called “national self-determination” highest on the totem pole of human endeavor. In 1914 Montenegro was an independent mini-state and absorbed without protest following World War I by Serbia as the first step on the road to expansion of a “Greater Serbia”. Now the process of Balkan nationalism has come full circle as the last remnant of the old Yugoslav state with Serbia as its core has evaporated.

The assassination of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist with the hope of involving the entire world in a great war in order to “liberate” the Southern Slavs of Bosnia-Herzegovina achieved an objective that very few on the Allied side ultimately believed justified the enormous loss of life and material destruction that set Europe back into the Dark Ages. The cause of the terrorists was all the more senseless as Ferdinand was the most liberal of any potential successor to the Emperor Franz Josef and willing to expand the empire’s framework into a three-way partnership to include the Slavs alongside the German speakers and Hungarians. Of course, there had been other issues that were supposed to be resolved with the conclusion of the Versailles Treaty such as the independence of Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Baltic states as well as the return of Alsace-Lorraine to France. All of these arrangements have stood the test of time in spite of another world war and the dominance of the eastern European nations by the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, the match that lit the bonfire of world war was Serbia’s aspiration to expand its borders and repeat the annexation of other territories as it had done with tiny Montenegro.

The dream of Yugoslavia turned out to be a nightmare and the divisions and distinctions between the many Southern Slav peoples and neighbors in language and religion – Serbs, Bosnians, Croats, Slovenians, Montenegrins, Bulgarians, Greeks and Albanians only reemerged with delayed hostility repressed for close to century. The result was carnage whose principal victims were innocent civilians on all sides. The same is happening at this very moment among the various Palestinian factions which even the media ordinarily sympathetic to the Arab Palestinian cause have been unable to mask or call by any other names than “anarchy”, “running amok” and “going on a rampage”.

Gavrilo Princip, the assassin who went to his death a happy man knowing that he had involved the world in war to liberate his Slav brothers and turn Serbia into a larger state, has to rank alongside of Yassir Arafat whose career of murder and mayhem made him a cult figure among all those who still believe that a basic injustice was done to the Palestinian Arabs in 1948 and ever since. The Palestinian leadership rejected the compromise offered to them in 1948 and have since sought instead continued “martyrdom” and confrontation. Arafat too went to his death confident in the notion that he had rejected a humiliating peace compromise of two states. He preferred a vision that future generations of Arabs would be promised more conflict and martyrdom in the hope of eliminating Israel. What was untenable about the compromise was not the fear that it offered the Palestinian Arabs a state that might not be viable ” but that it ensured a viable Israel. As Abba Eban and Golda Meir so correctly stated it, the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

The Southern Slavs have indeed come full circle from the expansionist Southern Slav nucleus of Serbia that had annexed Montenegro and went on to devour the remaining territories only to collapse in a paroxysm of violence in the 1990s and split apart. The collapse of the remaining Montenegrin-Serbia region restores the situation that existed before World War I and closes the circle. This hardly qualifies as progress.

The favorite question historian ask and bored cynical schoolchildren would love to have answered is “Does history teach us anything?” Looking at the continued disintegration of the Palestinian authority after years of massive subsidies and political support from their Arab allies, naïve European sympathizers and Third World imitators who learned from them the art of hijackings, kidnappings and terrorism against innocent civilians, there is all the more reason to answer this question. The answer is often couched in the euphemisms and political “newspeak” of polite diplomacy and historical examples are frequently misused in feeble analogies.

The novel The Good Soldier Schweik, a classic ironic satire on the futility of the First World War by the Czech author Jaroslav Hasek is worth recalling as a timely warning to avoid the fashionable phraseology of “national liberation” that has led to so much grief.. Hasek clearly foresaw that whatever the grievances of the various Slav peoples under Austrian rule, their plight would not be solved by war, terrorism or the creation of a super-Slav state in which the weighty factors of geography, language and religion would not be overcome by any sense of Slav solidarity.

The gulf separating the secular nationalist outlook of the Fatah movement which is always careful to proclaim and nurture its vision of Arab Christian-Muslim brotherhood and the Islamic fundamentalism of Hamas, is of even greater potential hostility. If Iran, under its current leadership, the leading aspirant to the anti-Zionist Holocaust-denying crown of Muslim fanaticism, were to gain regional supremacy through its nuclear blackmail, there is no doubt that it would be on a collision course with the ultra-radical Sunni Hamas movement whose “apostasy” qualifies them in almost the same category as the infidels.

The Good Solder Schweik opens in a barroom where the news has just arrived of the Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination in Sarajevo and becomes the number one topic of conversation by the local cronies. They speculate over the likely consequences and political motives involved in the event. Schweik, an affable and phlegmatic Czech (Northern Slav) has to mediate his expected sympathy for the “cause” of his “Southern Slav brothers” with the demands of loyalty to the Austrian crown. He ventures a guess that the event will unleash a war, which, he believes should naturally pit Austria and Serbia as allies against the Turks – the hereditary “traditional” enemy of both (akin to Israel among the many Muslim states).

The laconic Schweik foresees Turkey being joined by its ally Germany, against which Austria and Serbia will have no recourse but to join with France, England and Russia (the great protector of the Slavs). This happy scenario of wishful thinking gets it mostly wrong and the alliances turn out to be almost the opposite of those predicted by Schweik who becomes the butt of many jokes, but could well claim to have had the last laugh in the light of today’s events both as a result of the Montenegrin plebiscite and the scenes of Fatah gunmen shooting up the Palestinian parliament building and cabinet rooms. Schweik knew well how removed nationalist agitation is from real human needs once the flags, speeches, trumpets and guns are no longer the order of the day.

Gavrilo Princip should have saved his ammunition for hunting and Arafat should have accepted the offer made by Israeli Premier Barak with the blessing and promised billions of dollars made by President Clinton. After the two world wars, the Southern Slavs are more divided than ever and there is a growing nostalgia for the old benign Hapsburg rule. Should the Palestinians in border areas along the Green Line ever really participate in a plebiscite were there to be a mutually agreed upon vote to decide citizenship, there is little doubt that whatever has been said or done in the past, a majority would prefer Israeli rule than the prospect of chaos and anarchy or revert back to the Jordanian Kingdom which already has a Palestinian Arab majority of 70%. Such a new and truly viable as well as homogeneous Arab state would have long ago solved the refugee problem and self-imposed martyrdom complex by allowing the Palestinians to fully participate in their own state. For those who have preached about the necessity of another Palestinian state, let them contemplate the constant tension and potential for conflict that exists today between the “Two Chinas” and the “Two Koreas” {Don’t forget the “Two Vietnams”) and the experience in Europe for more than 40 years of “The Two Germanies”.

True, as cynics have always quipped that allies and enemies change partners every generation, but the Yugoslav case is particularly instructive as an example of the fragility of states without an orderly tradition of democratic rights, individual liberties and stable government. Whether the Slavs or the Arabs “ultimately” unite in a single state or remain fragmented into a host of petty quarreling states should be their own issue and concern but fifty years from now it is likely that Yassir Arafat will be as little remembered or venerated as Gavrilo Princip.

The Scandinavian states and the Swiss reached their own solutions only after centuries of conflict, wars and ultimate compromise. The progress in these countries and the current efforts aimed at a United Europe point at least to one basic formula for success. There needs to be a greater force pulling the parties together than those likely to tear them apart. On the one hand, this means a common economic market, peace and stability with all one’s neighbors and a forum in which some local autonomy is recognized without the necessity of new flags and armies.

The Jews have not had the luxury of squabbling over a dozen or more states as the Slavs, Arabs and Latin Americans. Had there been even one Jewish state in the world, there would have been no “Jewish Problem” in the 1930s. this is exactly the decision arrived at by Richard Crossman who was appointed by the Labor Government to examine the Palestine question leading up to the U.N. Partition vote. He was a principled man who refused to accept the party line and his study of the Jewish refugee question led him to the conclusion that while he originally conceived that Palestine presented a “problem” (resistance of the Arab and Muslim world to giving up any part of the territory), it presented a solution to Jewish homelessness and helplessness aggravated by the lack of a single state of their own. After touring the survivors of the European refugee camps, he said “I realize now that Hitler has won. He has created in central and eastern Europe a Jewish nation without a home…..this nation must emigrate.” Today, the State of Israel is and will remain the sole arena to resolve internal conflicts between all Jews who choose to live there, the orthodox and secular, European (Ashkenazi) and Afro-Asian origin (Sefardi), rich and poor, new immigrants vs. veterans.

The “achievement” of regained Montenegrin independence or a Palestinian mini-state without any fundamental rights and individual liberties for its citizens or true reconciliation with Israel will simply add another flag and national anthem to be hailed at international events and provide plush jobs as ambassadors for another hundred party-hacks loyal to the demagogue in power. It will achieve nothing of any lasting consequence. But of course, Schweik knew that much already in 1914.

To read more articles by Norman Berdichevsky, click here.


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