Serbia’s Great War, 1914-1918

TitleSerbia’s Great War, 1914-1918
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsCallaway, James
Author(s) of reviewed materialMitrović, Andrej

book; translated from the Serbian original.

PublisherLondon, Hurst and Company
ISSNISBN 978-1-85065-766-8
Review year


Full Text

On July 28, 1914, Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on the Kingdom of Serbia initiated four years of struggle for the survival of Serbia as a nation and a cataclysmic world war.  Despite Serbia’s military defeat and occupation by the Central Powers in 1915, Serbia’s government, military, and public citizens together played a central role in the south-east European theater throughout the First World War and were a fundamental force behind the political organization of the postbellum Balkans.  And yet, in the English speaking world, scholarship addressing Serbia’s role in the war is unexpectedly scarce, and no work devoted specifically to Serbia’s war time episode exists.  In this current situation, the translated work of Professor Andrej Mitrović’sSerbia's Great War, 1914-1918 is greatly welcomed. Mitrović, chair and Professor of Modern History at the University of Belgrade, meticulously details Serbia’s wartime experiences, referencing a substantial volume of primary and secondary sources.  Serbia's Great War, 1914-1918 has been the definitive account of Serbia’s story in the First World War since the first publication of the work in 1984 in Belgrade, and with its English publication by Hurst &Company in 2007, Mitrović’s unique study is now accessible to a markedly wider audience.      
Serbia’s Great War is primarily a chronological narrative of Serbia’s continuation as a country between 1914 and 1918.  Mitrović chronicles the two most remarkable achievements of Serbia during the First World War: maintaining a functioning country completely outside of its original geographical boundaries and, even while under military occupation, successfully cultivating a plan of physical expansion and political unification.  The book focuses on these two achievements in particular and deals with the actual military campaigns of the war only briefly and often superficially.  The main strength of Serbia’s Great War is that the core of this work provides new information. The book is divided into seven sections: the diplomatic and internal events that precipitated the outbreak of war, the cultivation of an inchoate Yugoslav program into a war aim, Serbia behind the front lines, occupied Serbia, the continuance of Serbia’s political administration and culture abroad during the occupation years, and the progress and fruition of the Yugoslav initiative.  All of these sections provide a fairly wealthy amount of new information, which, one hopes, will be used as ground work for further research into the area and period.
The book’s sections can be grouped into two main areas of research: activities within and outside of Serbia. Chapters The Yugoslav Programme, Serbia Suffers, Occupation, and Armed Resistance give vivid pictures of life in Serbia when it was at war as well as in the occupied territories, contrasting the occupying regimes of Bulgaria and Austria-Hungary, and provide a fascinating account of the uprising of 1917 and 1918 – the only uprising during the First World War and an event that has received hardly any attention from historians.  Mitrović explores both the lives of the people and the administration of the occupation governments, presenting an image of a complex and, in many regards, precarious political situation in which the occupying powers had to defend their zones of administration from recurrent internal conflict and the designs of other Central Powers. 
According to Mitrović, each occupation regime operated in its own way with its own set of goals and regulations: “Bulgarian occupation authorities intended to conduct a ruthless denationalization programme as quickly and systematically as possible,” and the Austro-Hungarian occupation force suffered from an extension of the administrative complexities and decision making difficulties that were characteristic of the Monarchy’s dualist structure (p.221).  Mitrović also emphasizes the role Germany played in the economic exploitation of Serbia, in which German confiscation of natural resources and the presence of German banks as the financial foundation of the Central Powers war effort created stress on Germany’s relationship with Bulgaria and Austria-Hungary.  The details of the economic exploitation by the Central Powers and the financial management of the occupied zones are exhaustive.  The economics elements are often rather specific and may be difficult to grasp for a non-specialist, but the friction between Germany and its allies that it discloses makes Serbia's Great War, 1914-1918relevant to any study of diplomacy among the Central Powers.
Chapters On Foreign Soil and Towards a Yugoslav State examine the activity of Serb communities outside Serbia, both the exiled government and individual groups that immigrated to allied and neutral countries, in their attempts to maintain the Serbian state in absence of the Serbian nation and to achieve a Yugoslav state after the war. The most attention is given to Serbia’s exiled government on Corfu. Mitrović’s treatment of the Dimitrijević trial presents new information on the activity of the Black Hand, which is often erroneously considered to be removed from actual Serbian politics, and illustrates the struggle for political primacy within the exiled Serbian administration between the government in place and various factions, and between Regent and Prime Minister. The description of Serbian Diaspora activity proves equally important to an accurate picture of Serbia during the war years.  An exceptional subsection on schoolchildren and teachers that analyzes the exiled Serbian government’s attempts to maintain a capable population while in exile through the funding of Serbian schools in foreign countries demonstrates the government’s insistence on ensuring the security of the postwar Serbian state.  Mitrović’s efforts in providing a precise depiction of Serbian political and cultural life outside of the occupied nation are commendable and, what is more, a firm comprehension of how the Serbian government survived and operated during the war appears central to any understanding post-war Yugoslavia.    
Despite the fresh material presented in Mitrović’s work, it is not without its deficiencies.  The first section, which details the events leading up to the outbreak of war, provides quality information on the political situation within Serbia on the eve of war, but is crafted around the author’s dogged insistence on Germany’s guilt in instigating the war.  The author frankly states that, “the localized war the Monarchy had wanted lasted only three days, as the declaration of war quickly produced large-scale armed conflict, for which Germany was responsible” (p.53).  Mitrović’s resolute position on the controversial topic of German war guilt should be accompanied by competent support, but the support that Mitrović presents is insufficient and not always backed by relevant sources.  Important claims, such as the bribing of foreign press by the German government and the sending of government officials on holiday in order to create the impression that Germany was not anticipating war, lack source citations (pp.37-9).  The attention given to Germany’s role in subduing and occupying Serbia is adequate, but the repetitious claims of Germany’s culpability throughout the first one-third of the book distract from the main topic of Serbia’s story in the war.  Aside from this issue and a few awkward grammar constructions, Serbia’s Great War represents the work of an erudite historian. 
It is to be hoped that Serbia's Great War, 1914-1918 shall be a precursor to further scholarship on the subject of Serbia’s involvement in the First World War.  The English translation is only an abridged version and with original publication in 1984, the end of the Cold War, the disintegration of Yugoslavia, and the wealth of fresh research on the First World War period justify reinvestigation of this topic. In his introduction to the book, historian Professor Mark Cornwall identified three important aspects of Serbia’s war time history: the interlocking development of the war time continent, the construction of a Serbian mythology, and the participation of Britain in Serbia’s cause (p.viii).  Because Serbia's Great War, 1914-1918 only deals with the first of these topics in a significant, though indirect manner, it is apparent that there is much room for additional scholarly work within the larger topic of Serbia and the First World War.  Professor Andrej Mitrović has done a tremendous favor to historians of Serbia, the First World War, and modern Europe by making his scrupulous research open to all in Serbia's Great War, 1914-1918, and, it is to be hoped that this new English translation will generate an interest in Serbia’s Great War also outside the community of native speakers.