Yugoslavia and the Riddle of Eastern Europe

By Max Gaeta.

Introduction

Eastern Europe is a region that is white of skin, yet it has never been a part of the cradle of white civilization, Western Europe. For much of the past century, there has been a clear divide between these two regions, as many Eastern European countries rejected the Western order to pursue one based on a differing set of values and principles. The Soviet Union pioneered this effort, one that sought to build a society rooted in the uplift of the people and inspired the masses of the world to attempt the same. Yugoslavia followed, fighting for an alternative vision that severed its alliance with the West in order to align itself with the struggles of Asia and Africa. The collapse of the Eastern Bloc ultimately gave way to the infiltration of the Western way of life, but this is a life no longer sustainable and one in desperate need of a new hope to guide it forward. 

As an emerging global power following WWII, the Soviet Union faced a vital decision in how it would treat its people and connect to those of the oppressed world. In “The Riddle of Russia,” a chapter from the book Color and Democracy, W.E.B. Du Bois outlines these two potential futures for the Soviet Union,

“The first is that its admission to full partnership with the capital-exporting and technically efficient countries of Western Europe and the United States will make it a party with them in the exploitation not only of working classes in general but especially of working classes in colonial areas…The second alternative is that the Soviet Union, clinging tenaciously to its program of socialized wealth, will refuse to be beguiled or tempted by either England or America.”

Du Bois’ prophetic words outline the moral choice that not only the Soviet Union faced seventy five years ago, but one that the entirety of Eastern Europe has been forced to confront throughout its history and is ever-present in the moment of today. Both geographically and civilizationally, Eastern Europe sits in a unique position between the West and Asia and has possessed this decision of whom it will align itself with and how it will relate to the rest of the world. Amidst the crisis of a collapsing Western world and a new alternative in the rise of Asia, where will Eastern Europe go today?

The Basis of Eastern European Civilization

European civilization is sometimes viewed as a conglomerate of its Eastern and Western territories, yet it is vital to distinguish Eastern Europe as an interrelated but fundamentally distinct civilization that possesses its own unique history, values, and traditions. In The Conservation of Races, Du Bois gives a basis for this distinction by identifying the different peoples of the world as they have been seen throughout time. He does not use the term “race” to mean the traditional notion of a person’s phenotype, but rather in a deeper sense that encompasses the fullness of their civilization. Du Bois writes,

“The deeper differences are spiritual, psychical, differences—undoubtedly based on the physical, but infinitely transcending them. The forces that bind together the Teuton nations are, then, first, their race identity and common blood; secondly, and more important, a common history, common laws and religion, similar habits of thought and a conscious striving together for certain ideals of life. The whole process which has brought about these race differentiations has been a growth, and the great characteristic of this growth has been the differentiation of spiritual and mental differences between great races of mankind and the integration of physical differences.”

Du Bois identifies the Slavs of Eastern Europe as a unique race, distinct from the ones that compose Western Europe. These Slavs include the “Czech, the Magyar, the Pole and the Russian,” who are a blending of the Mongolians of Eastern Asia and the Teutons of Middle Europe, a duality that is at the crux of what has shaped Eastern Europe over the centuries.

Although distinctions between Western and Eastern Europe can be seen for millennia, the East-West Schism of 1054 marked one of the most significant partitions of the two regions. This dispute between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches had been fomenting for centuries prior and segmented Europe along diverging political, geographical, linguistic, and theological lines that have still persisted today.

Nearly 200 years after this split, the Mongolian Empire seized control over much of Eastern Europe, advancing from parts of Russia to as far west as Austria and Czech lands, and as southern as Bulgaria and Serbia. The volatile Mongol rule would last less than a century, but its impact would have an enduring effect, as it brought East Asian culture to the West and valuable tools such as the compass, gunpowder, paper, and the ability of printing. 

In the early 16th century, while much of Eastern Europe was ruled by Ottoman, Polish-Lithuanian, and Russian empires for years to come, the West began shaping its identity on the degradation of human life through the African slave trade and worldwide colonialism, out of which arose the principles of whiteness. In order to justify the horrendous crimes committed, an entire civilization — by the erasure of Africa’s culture and history and the mass concealment of the means by which Europe ascended — compromised morality for luxury and convinced itself that those of darker skin were less than human. From the docks of River Thames, to the shores of Lisbon, to the heights of Zugspitze, to the extravagance of the Stockholm Palace, these Western European countries erected their civilization from the plunder of the darker world and bear the seal of white supremacy as we know it today. Eastern Europe never took part in the slave trade or participated in the centuries of direct colonialism, for this white identity, rooted in the domination of the world, is one exclusive to the West. 

In an effort to obscure and justify the horror of its far-reaching destruction, the West adopted an entire culture of perverting the truth in order to uphold the supremacy of the white race and the inferiority of darker peoples. This notion of Western superiority was not exclusive to the darker world, for the West also used it to degrade Eastern Europe and its peoples. During the period of Enlightenment, Western travelers and philosophers described Eastern Europe as an uncivilized and barbaric region that was “neither Occident or Orient” but rather a perplexing combination of both. Du Bois brings to light this Western perspective, explaining

“For a century or more the Russian mushik was bracketed with the Negro slave and the Latin peasant as the most stupid and unhopeful of modern men. It was pointed out that the rule of the Czar and the aristocracy was absolutely necessary in a country so dismally ignorant and unprogressive as Russia.”

However, history would reject this discourse when the Bolshevik revolution in October of 1917 shocked Europe and sparked a current of hope that reverberated across the oppressed world. The Bolsheviks overthrew the Russian monarchy that had exploited and impoverished its people for hundreds of years, culminating with the establishment of the first communist state, the Soviet Union. Du Bois echoes the significance of the Soviet effort, 

“Every line of argument was brought to bear to show that the Russian experiment was, in the words of Lathrop Stoddard, ‘a revolt against civilization.’ And finally, to complete the paradox, here is Russia today leading the forces of the world in an endeavor to save civilization.”

This ‘revolt against civilization’ gravely threatened the way in which the West had been functioning for centuries. The Soviet Union endeavored to tear down the current oppressive order of the world and reconstruct one that put the people in charge of their own destiny. The following decades would be a time of great transformation, as communist governments, many inspired and influenced by the Soviet Union, rose from the people and established what became known as the Eastern Bloc. This was an epoch of great striving towards improving the conditions of working people and giving them a full opportunity to grow, when those in charge decided that the development of human beings was more important than the accumulation of profits and the greatest enemy of humanity was poverty, disease, war, and ignorance. Nowhere in Eastern Europe is this tradition more evident than in the story of Yugoslavia. 

Tito and Socialist Yugoslavia

Yugoslavia, meaning the “Land of the South Slavs,” has been fragmented throughout time under varying imperialist rulers, acting as a diffusion center between Western Europe and Asia and resulting in an ethnically and religiously diverse group of people. The origins of a united South Slav state were rooted in a push towards a shared culture and consciousness that recognized the unification of the Balkans as the only means by which its people could achieve true independence. This Yugoslav idea wouldn’t be fully realized until the end of WWI when it was formally established at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, signifying the first time these sporadically independent nations had been one. In the period of time between the two World Wars, the new Yugoslavia, ruled by its royalist government, remained in a volatile state and its nations were still largely divided. However, the Yugoslav people would soon be united in the face of German imperialism by the leadership of Josip Broz Tito. 

Tito was born in 1892 to a peasant family, his mother a Slovene, his father a Croat, in a time when an independent Yugoslavia was still just an aspiration for his people. His hometown village of Kumrovec, Croatia stood on the 300 year-old ruins of a great peasant revolt that sought to overthrow the cruel jurisdiction of the feudal lords, a past that had a lasting effect on Tito’s being. Tito worked on his family farm for much of his early life, but spent additional years with his grandparents in Slovenia, gaining an appreciation for not only the Croats but also the Slovene people and their relationship to the West. At the dawn of WWI, he was reluctantly drafted into the Austro-Hungarian Army, where he was captured by Russian forces and remained a prisoner until the disorder of the Bolshevik Revolution provided a window for escape. While Tito was on the run, he was at one point stopped by a Bolshevik guard who asked him: “Who goes there?” Tito responded: “A prisoner.” The guard said: “No comrade, you are free. This is a revolution.”

The Bolsheviks had a considerable impact on Tito. He enlisted in the Red Guard for the remainder of the war, and after his eventual return home in 1920, he joined the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (CPY) in the hopes of inspiring a similar revolution. The majority of the next two decades, Tito lived as a revolutionary fugitive, working his way up the Politburo, evading communist crackdowns, surviving stints in prison, traveling throughout the nations of Eastern Europe, and ultimately earning the position of General Secretary of the CPY. When German forces invaded Yugoslavia in April of 1941, Tito and his militant group, the Partisans, led an armed struggle that liberated the Yugoslav people from Nazi occupation. By the end of WWII, Tito had won the support of the people and together they completed their revolution, eventually anointing Tito as the President of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

After the war, a widely desolated Yugoslavia was forced to turn to the West (primarily the United States) for aid to rebuild the country. However, this posed a balancing act for Tito — accepting material assistance from the West while defending his country from its unrelenting imperialism — a dynamic that would continue to burden the region far after his death. This meant that although Yugoslavia would receive financial loans from the West, they wouldn’t compromise their principled unity with the oppressed world and allow Western influences to dictate their economic systems, foreign policy, or political organizations.

Left: A warm embrace with Kwame Nkrumah on Tito’s visit to Ghana in 1961. Right: The initial founders of the Non-Aligned Movement, Nasser, Nehru, and Tito, join arms in 1956.

1955 marked the great commencement of Afro-Asia unity at the Conference of Bandung. Although Yugoslavia was not in attendance, these same nations (and more) would come to Belgrade six years later and establish a new hope for mankind — the Non-Aligned Movement. Tito, together with Jawaharlal Nehru of India and Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, were the pioneers of this Third World movement, which brought together much of the darker world and sought to overcome the evils that had ruled over the world for centuries.

Along with leaders in attendance, such as Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and Indonesia’s Sukarno,   Tito spoke of the most urgent difficulties facing humanity, which he identified as colonialism, general disarmament, peaceful coexistence, and the economic disparity of the Third World nations. He condemned the West for their perpetual crimes against humanity in the darker world, stressing the utmost importance of eradicating colonialism in its entirety and drastically transforming international relationships to prevent a neocolonial world. Tito believed that true peace and freedom were impossible while any nation was trapped by exploitation and economic backwardness, recognizing that the liberation of humanity required a solution that was grounded in the material but ultimately transcended into the moral. The Non-Aligned Movement as a whole was an incredible effort to build a new way of life, a vision that synthesized the civilizational experiences of the darker nations and led humanity towards a future rooted in peace, justice, human solidarity, and the ability of all oppressed nations to determine their future and grow to their fullest potential.

During the Tito years, Yugoslavia was a unified country that revealed the possibilities of what the people could accomplish through the sacrifice of the individual and the embrace of collective solidarity. Education was free and widely accessible, medical care was a universal right, literacy rates exceeded 90%, public television was educational, culture was enriching, unemployment was among the lowest it had ever been, and homelessness was near extinct. The people lived modestly and were willing to forgo their material comfort and individual freedoms to gain the fullness of community and the fulfillment of a life grounded in a cause greater than the self.

Tito remains an inspiration to many Yugoslav people today, and even in the closing years of his life, he galvanized leaders of the national liberation movements in Africa. For example, after years of guerrilla warfare against the tyranny of Ian Smith’s colonial government in Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe finally took over in power and was quoted saying, “It was from Tito that I drew inspiration while searching for the best road to take and when making crucial decisions during our liberation struggle. I often thought, what would Tito do at that moment?” On his end, Tito believed that Europe should turn to Africa and the rest of the Third World for inspiration. 

The West’s Dismantling of Yugoslavia

“A State in the grip of neo-colonialism is not master of its own identity. It is this factor which makes neo-colonialism such a serious threat to world peace. The growth of nuclear weapons has made out of date the old-fashioned balance of power which rested upon the ultimate sanction of a major war. Certainty of mutual mass destruction effectively prevents either of the great power blocs from threatening the other with the possibility of a world-wide war, and military conflict has thus become confined to ‘limited wars’. For these neo-colonialism is the breeding ground. Such wars can, of course, take place in countries which are not neo-colonialist controlled. Indeed their object may be to establish in a small but independent country a neo-colonialist regime.” Kwame Nkrumah — Neo-Colonialism, the Last Stage of Imperialism

Tito was the unifying force that kept a diverse Yugoslav people undivided while resisting foreign intervention, however his death in 1980 marked the beginning of the end for the country he had worked tirelessly to help build. Yugoslavia at this time found itself heavily indebted to the West, for they were still repaying their loans from the decades following WWII. With Tito gone, the West saw its opportunity to fragment and dismember the socialist government of Yugoslavia in an effort to replace it with an exploitable free market economy that served their own interests.

Through the destruction of the Yugoslav economy by way of harsh economic reforms, the bribing of politicians and financing of rogue militias, and the gross heightening of previous ethnic tensions and nationalistic tendencies, the West, led by Germany and the U.S., turned the Yugoslav people against one another and fabricated a civil war in the name of democracy. 

This war was unjustly framed as the rise of Serbian nationalism led by “dictator” Slobodan Milošević, whom the West painted as the perpetrator of an ethnic genocide preventing the surrounding nations of Yugoslavia from joining the “free” Western world. In reality, since Serbia and Milošević acted in direct opposition to Western interests by adamantly defying the breakup of Yugoslavia and desperately trying to preserve what was left of the socialist state, they became the chief victims of this distorted propaganda that drove the country further into conflict.

Perhaps one of the most troubling outcomes of the war were the NATO bombings in Serbia and Kosovo, which ultimately set a precedent for future military interventions in other parts of the world — Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, — on similar “humanitarian” grounds. The West unequivocally violated international law when it bombed Yugoslavia for nearly three months (at times with the use of depleted uranium shells), yet the majority of the Western world remained unmoved and complacently assented to its mission. In fact, 2020 Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders were among the warmongering Americans who urged the U.S. to take action against this “Serbian driven ethnic cleansing,” or as Biden put it, “fascist thuggery.” The twisted reality is that those who advocate these “limited wars,” who have the ultimate disrespect for the truth and moral integrity, are regarded as the leaders for peace and progress who will save America from fascism.

By the turn of the 21st century, Tito’s greatest fear had become a reality. The previous Yugoslav nations were effectively functioning colonies of the West with little (if any) power for self-determination, and its previously united people were left impoverished, ethnically divided, and spiritually despaired. Sadly, the forces of imperialism that unified the Yugoslav people in their concerted opposition prior took on new forms and destroyed the decades of work towards constructing an alternative way of life. This dismantling of Yugoslavia illustrates the evolving methods by which the West imprisons entire nations through economic extortion and war in the name of peace, and ultimately reveals a system of white supremacy that is desperately clinging on for its life and has no choice but to distort the truth and turn to unnecessary violence in order to keep itself afloat.

In Our Times

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 marked the end of Eastern Europe’s protracted communist struggle and the loss of its political autonomy. All across the Eastern Bloc, these previously communist governments fell and Western-style democracies were blindly implemented in their wake. As was the case with Yugoslavia, these new liberal governments had the sole purpose of transforming the country’s foundation to serve Western elites and suppressing their own unique histories and traditions that strived for unity and the betterment of the working masses. However, this broad stroke of regime change was not met without resistance. For instance, at the 2007 Munich Security Conference, Vladimir Putin highlighted the Western facade of democracy that was thrust upon the Russian people after the events of 1991, saying,

“Incidentally, Russia – we – are constantly being taught about democracy. But for some reason those who teach us do not want to learn themselves. I consider that the unipolar model is not only unacceptable but also impossible in today’s world…What is even more important is that the model itself is flawed because at its basis there is and can be no moral foundations for modern civilization.”

In the past decade, many in Eastern Europe have joined Putin’s sentiment and are actively rejecting the West and its arrogant imposition of destructive political and economic policies that have placed an immense burden on the people. This widespread discontent has invigorated mass support for the rise of anti-liberal figures in countries such as Hungary, Poland, and Bulgaria. It is no wonder that this fierce opposition has emerged in Eastern Europe; not only have its people been victims to recent Western imperialism and exploitation, but the arc of its civilization shows us a heritage that is incompatible with the principles of whiteness on which the West was founded. This trend is indicative of a much larger shift in the geopolitical balance of power.

In fact, the theme at this year’s Munich Security Conference in February was “Westlessness” — the fear that the West is being divided and challenged by the rise of China and may no longer dominate the world order. Only a few weeks later, Aleksander Vučić, the president of Serbia and member of their conservative party, declared amidst the chaos of COVID-19 that “European solidarity does not exist” and Serbia in this time must turn to China for support. This “Westlessness” is not simply a fear, but a present reality that is granting an oppressed world the opportunity to look East instead of desperately relying on a collapsing Western empire for their livelihood.

The seams of the Western blanket of liberal democracy over Eastern Europe are coming loose, yet merely a rejection of Western values is not enough to build a positive vision for the future.

The Riddle of Russia lingers at the doorstep of Eastern Europe once again — Eastern Europe has a choice to be a part of the effort to save civilization rather than some of its nations get lost in a flurry of anti-liberalism, while others remain repressed entities of the West. The Western powers have made every effort to weaken and fragment the people of Eastern Europe to not only destabilize the region for their own economic benefit but also compromise their unified commitment to world peace. Eastern Europe is strongest when its people are united under the common fight against imperialism and poverty, and today, they have an opportunity to align their struggles with the rest of the oppressed world striving for a more just future.

Further Reading

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