Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Trotsky on the Train South, 1912: "An Austro-Hungaro-Balkan International!"

Bulgarian soldiers dig trenches in the First Balkan War, 1912

Although the railway line from Budapest to Belgrade proceeds mainly in a southerly direction, from the cultural standpoint one moves eastward... On the station platforms and in the third-class carriages the multilingual, motley, culturally-confused East is displayed before you in kaleidoscopic fashion. Two Bulgarian students, a Serbian student and a Hungarian teacher talk together in an incredible language made up of Bulgarian, German, Serbian and French words... A Bulgarian worker, back from America after four years' absence, shares with a Slovak worker his observations about life across the Atlantic: half familiar words, gestures of explanation, misunderstandings, and the indulgent smiles of persons who are used to grasping only half of what the other one is saying. An Austro-Hungaro-Balkan International!1

- Leon Trotsky, Correspondences from the Balkan Wars, 1912

As war broke out between the Balkan states and the Ottoman Empire in 1912 Leon Trotsky took his seat on a train from Vienna to Belgrade. This latest military by-product of the concert of European Powers was to shock public opinion in the west with both its speed and its ferocity. Diplomatic efforts on the part of the European powers had the familiar effect of spurring nationalist tensions where they meant to dampen them. Trotsky was in the vanguard of condemnation of atrocities committed by various armies as they criss-crossed each other's territories - though especially of the Bulgarian, closely aligned with Tsarism to its north. His journalism (for leading Kiev daily Kievskaya Mysl) on the Balkan Wars, remarkable for its literary panache, is also an exercise in grand strategy. He is at once scathing of and sympathetic towards 'impulsive', 'underdeveloped' Balkan societies. For Maria Todorova, the influential author of Imagining the Balkans, Trotsky evinces - most surprisingly - textbook liberalism, his "blanket pontification" expressed in a "rhetoric almost as if lifted from present-day liberal think-tanks." But uniting liberal opinion against Tsarism would have been in this itinerant revolutionary's broader political interest. 


Nevertheless, as a 'good European' Trotsky undoubtedly shared the distaste of the European intelligentsia for such vulgar nationalist blood-letting. For a Marxist, too, such fiddly conflicts among malcontent "dwarf states" would have seemed a nuisance. One can't help but wonder - a little childishly - if Trotsky booked himself a First, Second or Third class ticket on that train. And what must those he surveyed - the "rabble" of gypsies and ashen-faced wives, skin darkening as the train ploughed south through the Danubian basin - have thought of this rather uptight, priggish Russian gentleman? 

In his own words, Trotsky was quite appalled by the situation he discovered in Serbia:

"I went to the war in the Balkans thinking of it as not merely probable but inevitable... when I learned that some men whom I knew well - politicians, editors, university teachers - were already under arms, at the frontier, in the front line, that they would be among the first to kill and be killed - then the war, the abstraction about which I had been speculating so easily in my thoughts and in my articles, seemed to me something unlikely and impossible." (64

Yet the First World War, again the progeny of Great Power manoeuvres in the Balkans, was just two and half years away. The formation of the Red Army, which Trotsky led in civil war, three more after that. In that conflict so many assertions of western moral superiority to, and sympathy with, the Balkans would quickly be revealed for the nonsense they were. Yet Trotsky was right on one account: "No way forward but federation" (68) was his conclusion apropos the Balkans. History was to vindicate him twice (cunningly though: first as farce; then as tragedy). What prospect, then, of a third?

(The above is partially excerpted from a forthcoming long-form essay on EU integration of the Balkans) 

1Trotsky, The Balkan Wars 1912-13, 58

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