Pruga ka Jadranu: Kratka istorija zeleznicke kampanje Srbije za prodor na Jadransko more

TitlePruga ka Jadranu: Kratka istorija zeleznicke kampanje Srbije za prodor na Jadransko more
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsSarenac, Danilo
Author(s) of reviewed materialMilicevic, Milic

book. Title translated: The Railway towards the Adriatic Sea: a Short History of Serbia’s Railway Campaign towards the Adriatic Sea

PublisherPristina, Leposavic: Institut za srpsku kulturu
Review year


Full Text

Milic Milicevic is among the few Serbian military historians. Born in 1964, he graduated in history in 1991 and worked as a Secondary School teacher. Since 1993 he has been working at the Historical Institute of the Serbian Academy of Science. He is dealing mainly with the history of the Serbian Army during the period 1804 to 1918. Milicevic wrote about the crucial military reforms that took place between 1897 and 1900, but he also inquired into less conventional themes, such as the analysis of the nutrition of the Serbian Royal Army or the private life of the and social background of the Serbian officers core. All of his works possess a distinctive quality, combining in-depth familiarity with the sources and clarity of writing that enables him to compose informative texts that are at the same time easy to read. The book Pruga ka Jadranu: Kratka istorija zeleznicke kampanje Srbije za prodor na Jadransko more presents a modified introduction of his PhD dissertation: Albanian Operation of the Serbian Army (1912-1913), defended last year, in 2007.

The topic of Milicevic’s dissertation is the military engagement of the Serbian Royal Army during the First and the Second Balkan War, in 1912-1913. After the first victories against the Turkish army, the Serbian High Command decided to use the momentum and extend its profits. More concretely, in order to obtain a direct sea exit they decided to occupy the area of what is today Albania`s coastline. After six months of military presence there the major European powers forced Serbia to leave the region. One of the main reasons for this military adventure lay in the idea cherished over centuries that Serbia required immediate access to the sea, if it desired to be an autonomous, self-governing state. Pruga ka Jadranu presents a history of the endeavor to implement this idea. We can follow the progress and setbacks of the Serbian railway project towards the south on 169 pages that are divided into nine chapters.

 In the first chapter “Prve ideje i pokusaji” [The First Ideas and Attempts] Milicevic traces the original ideas about the southern railway. He shows that already in the 1840s the idea about the railway was present in the Serbian public. Milicevic introduces the main problems that followed the development of the railway project ever since. Diplomatic support, for example, was among the first conditions for a railway project. The dedication of immense financial resources closely followed on the list. In this part of the work, the author stresses several general characteristics of the first railway systems, for example that the first passengers on the train were distinguished civilians and how merchant transports followed soon after, while later it was the army contingent booking the schedule.

“Pitanje Jadranske zeleznice i Carinski rat” [The Question of the Adriatic Railway and the Customs War] is the second chapter, in which the author follows the fate of the railway project during the economic war between Kingdom of Serbia and Austro-Hungarian Empire. As most of the Serbian export ran north, the closure of the border in 1906 caused a revival of the railway project towards the south. The third chapter is called “Rat zeleznicama” [War Fought by Railways], indicating how fierce the competition between the different Trans-Balkan railway projects was as well as the accompanying desires to gain support from the great powers. Special attention is also given to the Austro-Hungarian project of the railway construction towards Thessalonica.  This imaginary line of the steel rails was perceived by many states as wholly unacceptable – some contemporaries even believed that it played its part in accumulating the causes for outbreak of the Great War, a view Milicevic can only partially support. It is of interest to mention that this chapter also deals with the constant conflicts between Serbia and Montenegro over this fictitious railway line.  

The consequences of the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina for the railway project are explained in the fourth chapter titled “Prvo odstupanje od zeleznicke politike- vreme Aneksione krize” [The First Depart from the Railway Policy- the Time of the Annexation Crisis]. Much of it is devoted to the compensation project, elaborated by the Serbian Foreign Minister of the time, Milovan Milovanovic. Namely, he asked for a territorial compensation for Serbia comprising the narrow corridor along the Drina River. This way, Serbia would get its way towards south while abandoning its previous railway plans. Historians usually overlooked this suggestion, but Milicevic considers it as rather interesting. Still, Austro-Hungary declined making any kind of concession, and thus, the contest for a railway construction continued with almost regular twists of successes and setbacks.

In the fifth part of the book,”Novi planovi i nastojanja uoci Balkanskih ratova” [The New Plans in the Eve of the Balkan Wars] a new relevant element in the Balkan railway entanglement appears, namely Germany. The following chapter deals with the First and the Second Balkan war and is titled “Drugo odstupanje od zeleznicke politike prema Jadranu- pocetak razdoblja ratova” [The Second depart from the Railway Project- the War Epoch]: after the victories against the Turks in 1912, it seamed that the railway terrain would come under Serbian control. Through its “Albanian operation” Serbia believed that it had gained the port on the Adriatic Sea. As Milicevic explains, what followed was rather the opposite: a costly failure. Serbia had to pull back and all the Turkish railways, sprawling on the territories gained by the Serbian army were already the property of various powerful international boards. The special value of this chapter lies in the analysis of the Serbian Assembly debate over the responsibility for the railway failure in the Balkan Wars, a debate full of interesting general remarks about the nature of transport. Thus, Nikola Pasic, trying to excuse himself, mentioned the appearance of the airplane as a new means of transport that could compensate for the absence of access to the sea. Somewhat similarly, socialist deputies argued that the Adriatic Sea was overrated and that its trade significance had been surpassed long ago.

The railway project was continued during the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, as shown in “Obnova pokusaja izgradnje pruge prema Jadranu izmedju dva svetska rata” [The New, Interwar Efforts to Built the Railway]. Still, it did not make any significant progress as the country failed to obtain sufficient resources. The final realization of the project took place under communist rule, as is explained in the eighth chapter. After 1945, the project was revived, though financial problems again curtailed the works. Nevertheless, the construction could begin in 1951. Milicevic describes in detail the costly nature of the endeavor. At the beginning, only two of the six republics of Socialist Yugoslavia financed the works, Serbia and Montenegro. Soon, they were badly strained and the Federal government had to intervene. In the end, with loans from the World Bank in 1968 the work could be completed by 1976. Milicevic shows the impressive results: 477 km of rails, 254 tunnels and 234 bridges, with twenty million passengers and seven millions of goods transported per year. 

Pruga ka Jadranu is a short work written in an accessible way, which also means that the author does not address a number of potential ways of analyzing the questions raised by the Serbian railway project. Still, Milicevic’s precise and compelling exposition of facts stimulates thinking, not only over the nature of transportation and its conditionality upon geography, surpassing in importance all ideological choices, but it also encourages considerations over the results of Serbia’s foreign policy throughout the 20th century. This sense is strengthened by the author’s play with dates and places, relevant at the time of the book’s release. More concretely, Milicevic underlines that he finished the book in 2006, the same year when Montenegro voted for its independence, turning Serbia into a landlocked country once again. The fact that the book was published in Leposavic (a place inhabited by the Serbian community in Kosovo) is of some importance as well, also in the sense that one of the reasons for the construction of the railway was to reach out to the Serbian areas in Kosovo and Metohija.