The Second part of the Guardian of the Gate looks at British geopolitics and the way Serbia was supported in war as the gatekeeper between Europe and Asia. The maritime power, Britain, was determined to prevent a stable and prosperous Europe developing and connecting up with the Eurasian heartland. This part also describes how Britain came to betray their Serbian allies after using them as instruments against Germany in two world wars, and when their usefulness had been exhausted. It was originally published in Irish Foreign Affairs in 2011.
The Guardians of the Gate
In his Preface to ‘The Guardians of the Gate’ Laffan explained the meaning of his book’s title:
“The title, ‘the Guardians of the Gate’, is borrowed from a phrase applied to the Serbs by several speakers, in particular by Mr. Lloyd George in his speech on August 8 (1917). It is a summary of the services which the Serbs have always done their best to render to Christendom: for their country is, indeed, one of the gateways of civilized Europe. Despite their unhappy divisions and their weakness in numbers they have never ceased to struggle against the barbarisms of Turkestan and Berlin, which at different times have threatened to overflow the Western nations and the Mediterranean lands.” (p.3)
The Serbs’ strategic importance for England lay in the “the great importance of the position which the country occupies”:
“The Balkan peninsula consists largely of barren uplands and mountain ranges producing little in the way of valuable merchandise. But across it run at least two great trade-routes, from Belgrade to Salonika and from Belgrade to Constantinople, connecting Central Europe with the Aegean Sea and the East. There have been other routes, but to-day the peninsula is traversed by only two main railway lines which follow the two routes I have mentioned. These two corridors open the way through the inhospitable country and connect the rich plains of Hungary with the Levantine world… Foreign Powers, Roman, Frank and Ottoman, Austrian, Russian, and German, have desired and determined to control the overland routes of the Balkan countries. Now, athwart those lines of communication and commanding the north-western portions of both, lies Serbia… The little country stands in a position of world importance. She holds a gate-way between the mountain walls, and therefore she is in a situation of the utmost danger. Her stormy history, the long centuries of her subjection to foreign rule, and her present disastrous condition show how her more powerful neighbours have coveted the passage-ways which she commands.” (pp.18-9)
That was the geographical bit, but the contemporary importance of the Serbs lay in the fact that they were the gatekeepers who had closed the gates between Germany/Austro-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire and particularly in relation to the Berlin-Baghdad Railway. As Robert William Seton Watson (who played a very active role in encouraging the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the construction of both Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia) noted in another book, The Spirit of the Serb, published in 1915, on behalf of the Serbian Relief Fund: “Serbia has formed a rampart between the Central Powers and Turkey, a fatal flaw in the design which extended from Berlin to Bagdad, from Vienna and Budapest to Salonica.”(p.11)
The Reverend Laffan developed Seton Watson’s idea:
“To understand the relation of Serbia to German policy we must stop a moment and consider the map of the world. Germany, disunited till 1871 and absorbed in European affairs till 1882, had entered very late into the competition of the Powers for colonies. But for the last thirty years she had grown continuously more eager for the addition to her Empire of new countries. She was determined to be a world-power, with a decisive voice in international questions and the control of remote continents. Her writers made no secret of the national ambition. An admirable and ever-increasing fleet proclaimed her intention of ultimately challenging the British navy.
Foiled in the hope of using the Boers to establish German power in South Africa, German statesmen turned their attention to the Far East. Unable, owing to the common action of the Powers and the rise of Japan, to convert their territory of Kiao-Chau into an eastern empire, they then entered on their struggle with France for Morocco and the north-west coast of Africa. The solid resistance of France and Great Britain to German expansion in that quarter caused the Pan-Germans to put their faith in another plan to which no one was prepared to take exception. This great plan is best known under the short title of ‘Berlin-Baghdad ‘. The main idea was the erection of a system or chain of allied States under the hegemony of Germany, and stretching from the North Sea to the Persian Gulf. Berlin had long been joined to Constantinople by excellent railways, and German engineers were busy with the completion of a further line which should stretch across the 900 miles of Turkey in Asia to Baghdad and Basra and link itself up with the railway running south from Damascus to Mecca.
This railway was to develop and complete Germany’s economic and military control of the Ottoman Empire. The great untapped riches of Asia Minor should flow westwards to Germany, and German officers would be found in control of everything as far as the Persian mountains and the deserts of Arabia.
The plan was admirably feasible, and has been put in force almost completely in the course of this war (not quite, for our troops are solidly established on the Persian Gulf and hold Baghdad, while the Russians have penetrated far into Armenia). If ‘ Berlin-Baghdad ‘ were achieved, a huge block of territory producing every kind of economic wealth and unassailable by sea-power would be united under German authority. Russia would be cut off by this barrier from her western friends, Great Britain and France. German and Turkish armies would be within easy striking distance of our Egyptian interests, and from the Persian Gulf our Indian Empire would be threatened. The port of Alexandretta and the control of the Dardanelles would soon give Germany enormous naval power in the Mediterranean.
A glance at the map of the world will show how the chain of States stretched from Berlin to Baghdad. The German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bulgaria, Turkey.
One little strip of territory alone blocked the way and prevented the two ends of the chain from being linked together. That little strip was Serbia. Serbia stood small but defiant between Germany and the great ports of Constantinople and Salonika, holding the gate of the East. Little though we knew or cared in England, Serbia was really the first line of defence of our eastern possessions. If she were crushed or enticed into the ‘Berlin-Baghdad’ system, then our vast but slightly defended empire would soon have felt the shock of Germany’s eastward thrust.
To Germany, therefore, Serbia was an intolerable nuisance. Serbia would not be cajoled into the family of Germany’s vassal-states. Therefore, Serbia must be crushed. The Serbs knew well that the Treaty of Bucharest was not the end of war in the Balkans. As soon as the German military preparations were completed, an excuse would not be wanting, and then the Serbs might look to themselves, for the last and most terrible of their wars would burst upon them.” (pp.162-4)
That passage should be read in the opposite way in which Laffan intended it to be read. What it really expresses is the British fear of Germany as an honest commercial competitor that, if it is anything like Britain, might develop into a superior development of Britain itself. In many ways it is like England looking into a mirror and seeing itself, rather than Germany. All the things that Laffan sees in Germany and which he sees as threatening to England’s position are the very things that England itself practiced to become king of the world.
From Serbia to Jugoslavia
From Serbia to Jugoslavia by Gordon Gordon-Smith (with a Preface by Dr Slavco Grouitch, Minister of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes to the United States) published in 1920 has a part devoted to the Salonika expedition in which Laffan participated.
Gordon-Smith reinforced Laffan’s geopolitical views and revealed that the Salonika expedition was understood to have a wider strategic objective that the London government should have supported with more men and treasure:
“During the eighteen months I spent with the Headquarters Staff of the Serbian Army, I had continual opportunity of discussing with officers of the highest rank the importance of the whole Balkan front, and in the ten months I passed on the Salonica front, of discussing the real mission of the Army of the Orient. I found them unanimous in their opinion as to the importance of the operations in Macedonia.
In their opinion, the objective of the Army of the Orient was the cutting of the Berlin-Constantinople Railway… The possession of the Berlin-Constantinople Railroad assured the Central Powers the mastery of the Dardanelles. As Germany controlled the entrances to the Baltic, Russia was practically isolated from her Allies. The only means they had of forwarding war material to her was via Vladivostok or Archangel. In other words “Mittel-Europa” was realized and a situation created which, if it could have been made permanent, would have assured to Germany the domination of Europe, the first step to world dominion.
There is not the slightest doubt but that the cutting of the railway would have brought about the immediate collapse of Turkey… the collapse of Turkey as a military Power would have set free the British armies in Egypt, Mesopotamia and Palestine and the Russian army in the Caucasus for service elsewhere.
The appearance of the Allied fleets in the Black Sea would undoubtedly have called a halt to the intrigue of the pro-German court camarilla surrounding the Czar and even if the Russian revolution had taken place, the Kerensky army, as a “force in being,” would have been maintained, Bolshevism would have been nipped in the bud and the whole course of the war might have been changed. The failure to recognize these elementary truths constitutes the second capital error of the Allies in the Balkans and undoubtedly prolonged the war by at least two years.
Once Bulgaria and Turkey were disposed of, the Army of the Orient could have reoccupied Serbia, moved on the Danube and threatened Budapest. The Hungarian capital would then have been menaced from three sides — from the Danube, from the Roumanian front and by the Russian Army then operating in the Bukavina.” (pp.211-4)
Gordon-Smith believed that it was the Unionists’ obsession with winning the war of attrition on the Western Front that starved the Army of the Orient from making a more significant contribution to Britain’s war effort.
The Serbs and the destruction of Mittle-Europa
‘The Role of Serbia – A brief account of Serbia’s place in world politics and her services during the war’ by W.H. Crawford Price (1918) takes up the analysis where Gordon-Smith leaves off. Crawford Price was the celebrated Times correspondent in the Balkans who wrote a number of books about the region’s politics. It explains that because Serbia had provided the most service to England in seeing off German ‘Mittle-Europa’ it should be around a Serbian nucleus that a great buffer be constructed to prevent any further German attempts at dominating the Eurasian heartland:
“There has admittedly been a persistent evolution of British thought in regard to the aims and objects for which Germany plunged the world into the direst tragedy in all history. At the outset we were obsessed with the defence of Belgian independence; later it became evident that the retrocession of Alsace-Lorraine to France was an affair of international importance; and at last it slowly dawned upon public opinion that we were face-to-face with a German bid for world conquest. Mittel Europa and Pan-Germanism these were the issues of the world conflict. At length we recognised that we were fighting, not merely the armies of the Quadruple Alliance, but a grandiose political ambition which aimed at nothing short of the domination of the earth’s surface.
Briefly put, the Teuton scheme sought, in the first place, to establish a German-controlled corridor stretching across Europe and Asia Minor from the North Sea to the Persian Gulf, which would split the British Empire in twain, supplant British naval supremacy by German land dominion, and render Germany to a large extent independent of overseas supplies. Northern France and Belgium were to be controlled for their mineral wealth and manufacturing resources a process capable of serving the dual purpose of enriching Germany and beggaring France; the Baltic provinces of Russia for their agricultural possibilities; the Balkans and Turkey, principally because they held the high road to the East, and also because they contained rich prizes in the shape of raw materials, man-power and commercial markets.
This confederation Mittel Europa, as it was generally called was to provide Germany with the sinews of future wars and form the foundation of the German plan of world conquest. Thus solidly entrenched, Germany, wielding her augmented strength and exploiting Pan-Islamism as an advanced guard of Pan-Germanism, hoped to stretch forth her mailed fist and grasp the most treasured possessions of Asia, Africa and South America, until the glories of Imperial Britain lay as dross amidst the glitter of the Kaiser’s realms.
A dream, it is true; and at this date, happily, a dream which has been dissipated. But it would be unwise for us to forget that Mittel Europa constitutes an ideal for which the German people worked assiduously for twenty-five years, for which they suffered losses and privations in war which would early have destroyed the morale of any less determined nation, and for which they may strive in the future unless we erect such a barrier as shall dam for ever the onrush of Pan-German ambition.
Prior to the triumphant onslaught of the martyred Serbian Army in September, 1918, Mittel Europa was an accomplished fact. The foundations of world dominion had been laid. The Central Empires controlled a population of over 200 millions, capable of yielding an army of 25 millions and vast resources of raw materials. The Balkan Peninsula had become a bridge over which Pan-Germanism was passing to the conquest of the world, to the mastery of the Eastern Mediterranean, to the exploitation of Pan-Islamism, to Egypt and to India.
The menace has been temporarily removed. The Balkan bridge has been destroyed. But that is not sufficient. The Peninsula must become the rampart against Pan-Germanism. Only by such means can the security of our African and Asiatic possessions be practically assured.” (pp.3-5)
I think this passage encompasses many of the British geopolitical understandings that made two world wars against Germany in the twentieth century a strategic imperative for its ruling class. There is the understanding that Germany during the late nineteenth century entered the world market to the extent that she could no longer feed herself. This made her commercial rise and prosperity vulnerable to the guns of the Royal Navy – which constituted a kind of world’s policeman whose role it was to keep other nations from challenging England’s commercial and military domination of the world.
However, Germany took two steps to deal with this problem and maintain her commercial advance. Firstly, she began building a navy capable of acting as a deterrent to Britain so that England would think twice before entering into war with Germany and suffer such loss of blood and treasure that it would endanger her world-wide Empire and Imperial dominance. Secondly, she began to make provision for feeding herself and protecting her trade by developing trade routes across central Europe that would be not as vulnerable to the guns of the Royal Navy. This would make it more difficult for Britain to use its senior armed service in blockading Germany into submission through starvation of its civilian population – a thing that Royal Navy officers, like Admiral Fisher, had signalled their attention to do.
The Berlin-Baghdad Railway and the relationship with Ottoman Turkey were manifestations of this German commercial defence policy that Britain became obsessive about when they realised that one day the British Empire and its navy might no longer be capable of destroying its emerging rival for the trade of the world.
But Serbia saved England as the guardian of the gate and it sacrificed itself accordingly. It enabled Britain to frustrate the development of a European market under German supervision (perhaps in alliance with other European states) and free from the interference of the Royal Navy and England’s traditional Balance of Power politics that disrupted it by the promotion of war. It meant that England could construct buffers against a future German rise and encircle Germany with hostile states to prevent her securing commercial and military security in the near future.
Crawford Price thought that deserved both respect and reward:
“It is necessary to bear these and other similar facts in mind, for we require a tried and trusted friend in the Balkans, not one ready to sell her trust to anyone at any time for a mess of pottage. And, fortunately, we have such a one bound to us by the truest ties of friendship, one who has proved her loyalty beyond any shadow of doubt. I refer to Serbia.
Serbia has played the game throughout. If it be any honour to keep the gate for Britain, then she has already earned the distinction.” (p.7)
Postscript – Reverend Laffan’s great betrayal of the Serbs
In the course of writing this piece I searched for biographical details of Reverend Robert George Dalrymple Laffan. I found that he had come to be known as Robin Laffan in the 1940s through an obscure book. This book also told me that Laffan was an Anglican chaplain who later in life converted to Catholicism and became a great advocate of the restoration of the Hapsburgs in 1945 on the lines of the English Restoration of the 1660s. That notion rang alarm bells with me since Laffan seemed to have earlier desired the dissolution of the Hapsburg Empire out of which Yugoslavia could come about.
I discovered that Laffan also went on to work for the Royal Institute of Foreign Affairs (Chatham House) and became head of the Yugoslav Desk at the British Foreign Office during the Second World War. Having got this information I began wondering what Laffan must have thought about how Churchill betrayed the Yugoslavia he had been such an advocate of and had written so enthusiastically for. And it was then that the bombshell hit!
I was led to an article by David Martin. The name was familiar to me from writings that Athol Street had reproduced about Yugoslavia about 20 years ago as England began the business of a second betrayal. Martin had written ‘An Ally Betrayed’ in 1946 about how Britain had betrayed General Mihailovitch and Yugoslavia to Tito and the communists.
I found another piece by him which begins:
“THE MIHAILOVICH STORY: A RETELLING
BY DAVID MARTIN
To those who are familiar with the story, General Draja Mihailovitch ranks as perhaps the noblest, the most heroic and the most tragic and the most misunderstood figure of World War II.
The name of Mihailovitch first appeared in the Western press during the summer of 1941 when the German armies were driving toward Moscow and Leningrad and the news was black from every side.
The story that a certain Colonel Draja Mihailovitch had repudiated the capitulation to the Germans and had raised the flag of resistance in occupied Europe, came like a tonic after an unbroken diet of disaster. The name of Draja Mihailovitch became an international symbol of resistance to Nazi tyranny. Time magazine voted him the man of the year. Most lavish of all in its praise of Mihailovitch was the Communist press.
Two years later, in August, 1943, Draja Mihailovitch had, for all practical purposes, been abandoned by Britain and America. Stories began to appear in the press to the effect that Mihailovitch was collaborating with the Axis, that the Partisans were doing all the fighting against the Germans, and that it was for this reason that Anglo-American support was being shifted to the Partisans.
Once we committed ourselves to the support of Tito, the commitment was total. We armed his movement; we airdropped supplies to his forces when they were attacking the nationalist forces of General Mihailovitch; we converted B.B.C. and the Voice of America into instruments of Tito’s propaganda; we sent in recruiting missions to urge the Yugoslav peoples to join his forces; we carried out bombing at his request, directed against targets which he specified.
The scale of our military assistance to Tito was colossal. According to Brigadier General Fitzroy Maclean, during 1944 alone, the Western allies supplied the Partisans with over 100,000 rifles, over 50,000 light machine guns and submachine guns, 1,380 mortars, 324,000 mortar bombs, 636,000 grenades, 7,500,000 rounds of small-arm ammunition, 700 wireless sets, 175 000 suits of battle dress, 260,000 pairs of boots. In the light of these statistics, surely it is no exaggeration to say that Britain and America made Tito.
Inevitably, Mihailovitch and the Serbian people were doomed by this betrayal.”
Martin gives a number of reasons for the betrayal of Mihailovitch – one of which is “The Weaknesses and Prejudices of Churchill.” He also says: “Although President Roosevelt was never happy about the abandonment of Mihailovitch, he was handicapped because of the agreement that the British would have final say on Allied policy towards Yugoslavia.”
And it is then that we come to the Reverend Laffan. Martin gives as one of his major reasons for British actions:
“Anti-Serbian Prejudices in the Foreign office.
… Systematic falsification and disinformation made it easy for the anti-Serbian prejudices of key people in the Foreign Office and of Winston Churchill himself to come into play.
The spirit of the Serbian people and the vital role they have played in the preservation of European freedom, were summed up in these words by an Englishman, Mr. Robin Laffan, who fought with the Serbs on the Salonika front in World War I and who, in World War II, was head of the Yugoslav desk in the British Foreign Office:
‘If ever a nation bought its union and its liberty with blood and tears, the Serbs have paid that price. For five hundred years they have never been content to submit to slavery but have struggled unremittingly towards the light… They have kept faith with us to the utmost and have accepted the loss of all as better than surrender. Let us rather ask ourselves how it was that they came to be abandoned to their fate, and resolve that never now for lack of Great Britain’s sympathy and help shall they fail in the achievement of their national liberty’.
These words were written in 1918. They might well have been written again in 1945. It is sad to think that the man who wrote these words presided over the betrayal of Draja Mihailovitch. What motivated him?
Subsequent to World War I, Mr. Laffan became a convert to Catholicism. The author wishes to make it clear that he writes without personal religious prejudice of any kind. But the inevitable result of Mr. Laffan’s conversion was that he lost some of his earlier enthusiasm for the Serbs and developed a new-found enthusiasm for the Croats. Mr. Laffan was one of those who were disposed to believe that the accounts of the Ustashi massacres were greatly exaggerated and who were inclined to look upon Mihailovitch as the bearer of a Serbian vengeance. Mr. Laffan was in no way procommunist. He was a devout Catholic, a political conservative, a man of complete integrity, by every reasonable standard a man who was anti-Communist. But the sad fact is that Mr. Laffan and other Catholic conservatives were won over to the support of Tito, because Tito’s propaganda succeeded in persuading them that only he could save the Croatian people from a Serbian vengeance after the war.”
But had the Reverend Laffan really betrayed the Serbs because he became a Catholic? Or had he just become a loyal servant of the British State, like many before him (and of much higher intellectual calibre, like Arnold Toynbee, for instance)?
As it was pointed out in publications of Athol Street years ago (Problems of Communism and Capitalism: Yugoslavia the Great Betrayal and Victory in Europe, The Yugoslav Aspect) the bizarre turn of events is only explicable by a combination of the collapse of British power in 1940 and Churchill’s personal qualities.
Churchill abandoned the Royalist resistance movement in Yugoslavia and armed Tito’s Communist Partisans against it on the pretext that the Royalist leader, General Mihailovitch, was collaborating with the Nazis and that Tito’s Partisans were engaged in a very effective all-out war against them. As a result Churchill facilitated the extension of the Partisan movement into Serbia (where things really counted) and sold out his own side on dubious military grounds.
This British disorientation (combined with Churchill’s personal lack of judgement) came from the experience of 1940 when England’s war on Hitler was ended in a few weeks in France. From then on Churchill acted the role as a great warlord determining the future of the world when in reality such things were being determined by others. England showed itself to be incapable of fighting (and unwilling to on a number of occasions) that soon communicated to its allies that Britain was a beaten docket.
What underlies the story of Britain’s Second War on Germany after 1940 is something very insubstantial indeed: small espionage/terrorist attacks on the continent that provoked retribution on local populations; a skirmish in the desert at El Alamein to protect Egypt; the loss of the Far East Empire through an inglorious surrender to a smaller Japanese force at Singapore; the terror bombing of German civilians that killed hundreds of thousands of children and some ‘great escapes’ from prison camps.
All Churchill really presided over as regards anything of consequence (aside from the liquidisation of the British Empire) was the future of the ‘guardians of the gate.’ And that was messed up in the great betrayal of the Serbs.
Of course, Britain ‘rectified’ this error after nearly a half century of communism in Yugoslavia by breaking up what it had helped put together. At the end of the Cold War in 1989, when Yugoslavia had outlived its usefulness as a bulwark against the Soviet Union, Britain contrived to undo it by promoting nationalism within it. Mrs. Thatcher preached nationalism to it partly in continuance of the Cold War in order to eradicate the last vestige of communism in Europe and partly as an exhibition to Europe of the futility of multi-national entities. And Tony Blair then persuaded Bill Clinton to threaten a ground invasion, against his better judgment, in 1998 to detach ‘Old Serbia’ or Kosovo from the Serbian State. And so the Balkan Wars began again, and the ethnic cleansing, and the genocide etc.
Perhaps it was John Bull that was right all along: To Hell with ‘the guardians of the gate’!