The Independent Habit


by Phyllis Auty
McGraw-Hill, 343 pp., $8.50

Contemporary Yugoslavia: Twenty Years of Socialist Experiment

edited by Wayne S. Vucinich
University of California, 442 pp., $9.50

Tito; drawing by David Levine

Sir Lewis Namier told a story of a priest in Galicia who was trying to explain miracles to a peasant. The priest said: “If I jumped from the top of that church tower and landed unhurt, what would you call it?” The peasant answered: “An accident.” “If I did it again?” “Another accident.” “And if I did it a third time?” “A habit.” In the twentieth century defiant independence became a habit with the Yugoslavs, and it was a miracle as well. In 1914 Serbia defied Austria-Hungary and persisted throughout the First World War despite many disasters. In 1941 Yugoslavia defied Hitler and went down seemingly in utter disaster.

This was only the beginning. Tito gave the lead in national resistance. Yugoslavia was the only conquered country where something like open warfare against the Germans went on throughout the war. The Yugoslavs were the only conquered people who could claim, even if with some exaggeration, to have liberated themselves. At any rate, Yugoslavia was one of the few to end the war without an Allied army of occupation. Not content with this, Yugoslavia was the only country to defy Stalin. The defiance succeeded. But Yugoslavia did not go over to the other side. In the age of the cold war, Yugoslavia was perhaps the only genuinely nonaligned country and has remained so to the present day.

The Yugoslavs have no monopoly on courage. Other peoples have gone resolutely into disaster as the Poles did in 1939. The Yugoslavs add a skill which enables them to redeem their disasters. Their policy has been a strange mixture of obstinacy and moderation. The first impression on meeting them is of their cleverness, not of their pride—except of course with the Montenegrins. They are the most assiduous of diplomats. No one attaches more importance to the futilities of the United Nations, and they are prepared to sit out an international conference to the end of time. They let bygones be bygones. They are easily reconciled with former enemies so long as they get their own way. Despite all they suffered from Stalin, they did not demand a recantation before making it up with Khruschev. They appear to be a gentle people until you try to do business with them.

They do not owe their strength and survival to any gifts of nature and history. On the contrary, Yugoslavia, according to all rational calculations, was the country most doomed to disintegrate in the storms of the twentieth century. It has few natural resources: little coal or iron and a territory largely composed of barren mountains. The country of the South Slavs is itself a recent invention, hastily put together at the end of the First World War. Historical traditions, though strong, work against unity, not in its favor. Serbs and Croats were rivals, not allies. The Montenegrins have always been against everybody. The Slovenes are linked historically to…

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