Sunday, June 8, 2014


Reiss Institute
Vecernje Novosti
June 3, 2014

Aleksandra's Note: Many thanks to Nebojsa Malic, President of the REISS Institute for Serbian Studies, for translating this article in the Serbian newspaper "Vecernje Novosti" into the English language.

Aleksandra Rebic


Beacon of Hope

A century ago, in its Golden Age, Serbia was the world’s second most popular destination for immigrants, after the United States. The Belgrade daily Evening News (Večernje Novosti) explains why.

As Enticing as America

Boris Subašić
Večernje Novosti
1 June 2014.

A CENTURY AGO, families with names like Sondermeyer, Krakow, Roche and Deroko stood in defense of Serbia, shoulder to shoulder with the Sturms and Kirchners. Men and women, young and old, wore the uniform of soldiers or physicians. After fighting as volunteers in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, the barely-18 sons of these families fought in 1914 as experienced soldiers and officers.

“Today, when many Serbs are giving up their identity, it is difficult to imagine that people once wanted to become Serbs,” says the historian Dr. Miroslav Svirčević. “However, this happened often in the latter half of the XIX and the early XX century, when Serbia was second in the world by the percentage of immigrants arriving, right after the United States. And as immigrants to America wished to become Americans, those moving to Serbia wished to become Serbs.”

Unlike Serbia, which was a major destination for immigrants, Dr. Svirčević points out that Austria-Hungary was a major source of them.

“Unable to make a living, Serbs and other South Slavs were leaving what the Western historians often call the ‘prosperous’ Hapsburg empire,” says Dr. Svirčević. “Serbia, a small kingdom with political freedoms on par with Western Europe – especially after the victories in the Balkans Wars – became a beacon of hope for many seeking their place under the sun. Numerous foreigners became Serbs – George Weyfert (Ђорђе Вајферт), Paul Sturm (Павле Јуришић Штурм), and others. Even the Czech politician and statesman Tomas Masaryk had a Serbian passport, such was the prestige of the Kingdom of Serbia in the world, especially during the Great War.”

Screenshot of the Evening News article, June 1, 2014

The bravest unit defending Belgrade in the Great War, the Syrmian Volunteer Company chetniks, were commanded by Ignat Kirchner, a former Austrian officer. He remembered his Serbian roots and came to defend the fatherland he had never before seen, and had been told all the worst about.

The legendary Serbian general Pavle Šturm was born in Prussia as Paulus Sturm. His father was “Wendish” – the German name for Sorbians, living in Lusatia. Sturm left his career as a decorated Prussian officer and became a Serb in the Balkans Wars. His brother, Eugen (Евгеније) also became a Serbian soldier.

Šturm’s nephew, Pavle Jr, was promoted to Major during the Great War. After the April 1941 war, he joined the Yugoslav Homeland Army [the royalist resistance]. Caught by the Gestapo, he was offered mercy in exchange for loyalty to the occupation authorities, as he was considered a German. Pavle Jr. refused and told them he was a Serbian officer, after which he was shot.

“Serbia was a country of laws, in which a man could live off his labor and prosper,” explains Dr. Mile Bjelajac, another historian. “This was very attractive to experts in various fields. Look at the old surnames of bakers, pharmacists, and engineers in every Serbian town, and you will realize how popular Serbia was [as a destination for immigrants]. These people chose to become Serbs, thought of Serbia as their only homeland, and were willing to fight for it to the death.”

Ever since Serbia became an autonomous principality [in 1830], the rate of immigration kept rising. Immigration reached its peak between 1903 and 1914, when the military became a strong factor in politics. Foreign sources at the time claim that the officers who brought the Karađorđević dynasty to the throne were vigilant in case the new king turned out to be a dictator like the last Obrenović. However, this was no military junta, as the political parties fought fiercely for parliamentary democracy. That balance of power made Serbia an increasingly attractive place for living.

“The Constitution at the time was committed to political freedom, introducing a near-universal franchise that enabled almost all the able-bodied men to vote,” says Dr. Svirčević. “There were five modern political parties and ten daily newspapers, not to mention the periodicals. The intellectual elite was very strong. There were even translators of Japanese haiku poetry! The expanding education system, inspired by Western ideas at the time, enabled the successful integration of various communities living in Serbia. Belgrade became the capital of culture, led by a new generation of thinkers who argued for ‘French’ ideas of political liberty. For immigrants from the half-feudal Austria-Hungary, Serbia was America.”

He stressed that the image of Serbia as a land of illiterate, bloodthirsty savages and conspirators was created in Vienna, as Hapsburg war propaganda – and then accepted in Europe, which treated Vienna as the source of reliable information about the Balkans, even though the reality was rather different.

“What is forgotten is that Serbia had a strong parliamentary tradition,” explains Dr. Svirčević. “Turnout at the polls would be 70 percent, incredible by today’s standards. Serbia was a ‘peasant democracy’ of free farmers, not serfs as in the half-feudal Central European monarchies. Serbs were free men, creators of their own statehood, and considered it their right to decide its destiny. Today’s Serbia is unaware of this time, its memory erased by the Communist ideology that considered the Serbs its worst enemy.”

Ideology has almost erased the memory of people who willingly chose to be Serbs, invest their property into preserving Serbian heritage, and invest their lives for their new homeland. One such forgotten hero was Đorđe Roš (Ђорђе Рош), whose father was German and mother Slovenian. After taking part in the Balkans Wars, he was one of the “student corporals” in 1915. Seriously injured during the heroic defense of Belgrade, Roš saved the memory of the Great War’s most haunting order, by his commanding officer Major Gavrilović:

“Soldiers! Heroes! The Supreme Command has erased our regiment from the rolls. Your lives no longer exist. You have nothing to worry about. Forward, to glory! Long live the King! Long live Belgrade!”

Sentenced to death in absentia by the Communist regime, Roš left Serbia in 1944. He never stopped being a Serb, though. When he found out the Hilandar monastery was left destitute and was collapsing into ruin, he moved to the fishing village on Mt. Athos and used his money to save the Nemanjić legacy. Few in Serbia today know that Đorđe Roš is the only layman ever buried inside Hilandar, as a sign of recognition by the grateful monks.

Polish Heroes

The youngest soldier of the First Balkan War was Stanislav Krakow, 17, who joined the chetniks of Warlord Vuk. His father, Sigismund, came from Poland and became a medical officer in the Serbian Army in the late 1800s. In the Great War, Stanislav became an officer and a hero; later he was a journalist, author and director of the first Serbian war film – “For the Honor of the Fatherland.”

The youngest soldier at the start of the Great War was also a Stanislav – from the Polish family Sondermeyer. All the Sondermeyers were in uniform between 1912 and 1918. Col. Dr. Roman Sondermeyer, founder of Serbian war surgery, was the head of the Army Medical Corps. Sons Tadeus (Tadija) and Vladimir were student-officers by 1914. The 16-year-old Stanislav enlisted as a volunteer, serving in the Second Cavalry Regiment. He died in 1914, during a charge in the Battle of Cer.

Link to the original article in Vecernje Novosti:


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