Comment 10 Oct 12

Paul Deserves More from Serbia Than ‘Rehabilitation’

When the Regent was deposed in 1941, Yugoslavia lost a progressive, far-sighted leader who had begun to set the country on a different, better, path.

Marcus Tanner

Prince Paul will rest among his ancestors at Oplenac. | Photo by Beta

It’s good that Serbia has made peace with the memory of the Yugoslav Regent, Prince Paul, laid to rest among his ancestors at Oplenac on Saturday, in the presence of the President no less.

After years of official denigration as a pro-Nazi stooge and traitor, burial with full state honours marks a welcome change of heart.

But it doesn’t go far enough. Court rehabilitations and church services are one thing, but will they now rewrite the texts in the history books, and when will a real effort be made to change people’s minds?

Why no streets, squares and theatres named after a man who not only was no traitor but was arguably the most progressive leader Yugoslavia ever had?

Consider his record. For a few short years, between 1934 and 1941, Yugoslavia had at its head a well-intentioned highly educated and culturally sophisticated leader, a Renaissance prince if ever there was.

He was also an instinctive constitutionalist under whose all too brief period in power the apparatus of police repression more or less disappeared, elections became genuine popular contests and politicians campaigned from the hustings instead of having to smuggle out messages to cowed supporters from prison cells.

During those short years Yugoslavia was simply a better place than it had been before, or would later become. For a while it showed every sign of maturing into a modern European state, one anchored firmly into the family of western democracies, a state in which the national question – the question that had bedevilled Yugoslavia’s development since its creation – showed some hope of being resolved through civilised give and take.

One can only imagine how different it might all have been had Paul enjoyed a few more years in power. Just possibly, Yugoslavia could have remained outside direct engagement in the Second World War. In that case there would have been no Serbian-Croatian civil war, no 1.7 million war dead, no massacre of Yugoslav Jewry and no Communist takeover.

Fast forward to today and Yugoslavia might still exist under a constitutional monarchy much like Britain’s and with an average national income like Austria’s.

The Croatian, Slovene and various other “questions” would of course have bubbled on, but perhaps more like the Catalan question in Spain, the Quebec question in Canada or the Flemish question in Belgium - something that politicians argue about on talk shows.

Tragically, we’ll never know because the Regent’s reforming plans ran up against two huge, insurmountable obstacles, one at home, another abroad. Abroad, Nazi Germany pressed on relentlessly, demanding ever-closer ties, constantly limiting Yugoslavia’s freedom of manoeuvre.

And at home the Regent collided with the Serbian establishment – the threefold pillar of Church, Army and Radical Party, an arrangement that had run Serbia since the coup of 1903 and which tried to continue the same system in the expanded Yugoslavia after 1918. 

While Alexander was alive those forces still had the whip hand. He, after all, was one of them, body and soul. But Paul they didn’t care for and the antipathy was mutual.

They didn’t like his cosmopolitan outlook. More to the point, they didn’t like the concordat with the Catholic Church that he tried and failed to engineer in the mid-1930s. And they didn’t like the autonomous Croatian banovina that he forced through in 1939. They wanted to battle on in Croatia with Alexander’s tried and trusted methods - prisons, police batons, rigged elections and the rest of it.

As we all know, they got their way – for all of five minutes – in April 1941, before bringing the house crashing down.

The paradox of the Serbian conspirators of ’41 is that they finally destroyed what they had sought to restore. Like the aristocrats who plotted against Louis XVI they were too blinkered to notice that they were busily sawing off the branch on which they themselves sat.

There was, in fact, no way back to Alexander’s Yugoslavia. That route lay blocked. Instead, they inadvertently handed the baton to the opportunists waiting in the wings - Soviet-style Communists who had no intention of putting up with any of the compromises that Paul had tolerated.

Ironically, those old-style Church-and-Army Serb nationalists could have got much, or most, of what they wanted under the Regent, for the unspoken implication of the banovina settlement was that what didn’t go to autonomous Croatia would remain with Serbia. It’s hard to see how an independent Macedonia, Bosnia or Kosovo could have emerged in those circumstances.

So, perhaps, Macedonians, Bosnian Muslims and Kosovars might feel a little relief that Paul did not remain at the helm of Yugoslavia. For the rest, however, and for the Serbs above all, his deposition was surely a disaster.

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