6 July 2020
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The views from the past: Misunderstanding Serbia

Sometimes, the past is indeed a different country. During the years 1843 and 1844, a stubborn Englishman named Andrew Archibald Paton, Esq., became one of the first Western tourists to stroll around newly independent Serbia (still spelled Servia at the time). One day, he set himself a goal hitherto unheard-of – of visiting Kopaonik.

Author:  Jure Stojan, DPHILL

As Paton proudly recounted in his travelogue Servia, the youngest member of the European family, it took a lot of willpower on his part. to get to Kopaonik. ‘The plethoric one-eyed clerk, with more regard to his own comfort than my pleasure, was secretly persuading the captain that the expedition would end in a ducking to the skin, and, turning to me, said, “You, surely, do not intend to go up to day, Sir? Take the advice of those who know the country?” – “Nonsense,” said I, “this is mere fog, which will clear away in an hour. If I do not ascend the Kopaonik now, I can never do so again.”

Serbian history of the early twentieth century offers some of the most interesting parallels to twenty-first-century geopolitics.

Kopaonik: industiral zone in 1912

Today, of course, Kopaonik is a wellestablished tourist resort, a famous winter wonderland. Also, every March, proud host to Kopaonik Business Forum, where the region’s business, policy and academic leaders meet to discuss the pressing issues of the present. This event vividly demonstrates how today’s Serbia is a modern, successful economy. But it is also a country with deep historical roots – which continue to inspire today’s people. Serbian rich history is ignored at own peril.

It is also a history of how for a very long time now, the West has misunderstood Serbia. After all, in 1733, the Prussian University of Duisburg granted one of the earliest PhDs in what today would be called “Serbian studies”. The scholar was the now infamous Christian Frideric Van Delan, who submitted a Dissertatio De Vampyris Serviensibvs. The Latin title really says what it appears to be saying – this was a dissertation on Serbian vampires. It should be noted, however, that this seat of higher learning was hardly among the most reputable and shut down already in 1818. In other words, before some of the most interesting chapters of Serbian history even took place.

The poor man’s paradise

By the end of the nineteenth century, Serbia’s developing economy had already found international admirers. The title of a 1897 tome, by a certain Herbert Vivian, tells it all – Servia. The Poor Man’s Paradise. ‘The Servian peasant nearly always has more land than he can cultivate; he can boast of savings, either banked in an old stocking, exhibited in the headgear of his women-folk, or capitalised in the form of gold embroideries; and nothing will ever induce him to go into dependence,’ glowed the English author. ‘There are no Servian servants. Belgrade must import from Hungary, Austria, Germany, and even Italy. If you find servants of Servian race, you may be sure that they are either foreign subjects or have been recently naturalised.’

With the obvious drawbacks, one might add. ‘There is little luxury in Servian home-life, and the lack of servants makes comfort out of the question. As Servians are too independent to enter domestic service, servants have to be imported beyond the Sava, and they possess or quickly acquire impossible notions or equality. I imagine it cannot be very much worse in America. And the ladies of a Servian household spoil their servants by doing much of work themselves.’

Photo: Antun Mikasović

Defying gravity

BELGRADE, old and new Royal Palace in 1912

Incidentally, it is the Serbian history of the early twentieth century that offers some of the most interesting parallels to twenty-first-century geopolitics. The Commercial Treaty between Germany and Serbia of 1904 shows that diplomacy can indeed transform economic reality – or, that the so-called economic laws are less binding than their name suggests. In a nutshell, Serbia accomplished what economic theory predicts to be impossible – it defied economic gravity. Based on ideas borrowed from Sir Isaac Newton, this empirical regularity suggests that international trade is usually governed by the countries’ economic heft and the distance between them (mostly geographical but could also be cultural). 

Serbia accomplished what economic theory predicts to be impossible – it defied economic gravity.

So, a country should carry out most of its international trade with the biggest economy in the neighbourhood. Indeed, Serbia conducted most of its trade with the regional hegemon Austria-Hungary, despite the growing political tension between the two. In 1904, lands under Habsburg rule were responsible for 60% of Serbia’s total imports and absorbed 89% of Serbia’s total exports (16% by 1907). To put the contemporary Brexit debates into perspective, in 2018, the EU was the source of 53% of all UK imports as well as the destination of 45% of the entire UK exports).

BELGRADE, Knez Mihajlova street in 1916

Between 1905 and 1910, German exports to Serbia increased by some 559% and German industry had succeeded in securing a substantial share of the Serbian import market.

The historian Horst M. Lorscheider puts it succinctly: ‘As far as Austria- Hungary was concerned, the treaty was partially responsible for the loss of the Serbian market. Though this loss was painful for the Monarchy’s industry, it was by no means devastating, since even in 1905, the last full year of Austrian dominance in Serbia, the trade with that country amounted to no more than 2.25% of the Monarchy’s total foreign trade. For Germany, on the other hand, the treaty was a success. Between 1905 and 1910, German exports to Serbia increased by some 559% and German industry had succeeded in securing a substantial share of the Serbian import market. But in assessing the economic importance of the Serbo-German commercial treaty, it must be remembered that even in 1910, Germany’s trade with Serbia amounted to less than one percent of her total foreign trade. Economically speaking, therefore, the treaty carried vital and manifest significance only in Serbia.’

Adriatic Journal

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