Hitler's Moves in the Balkans


By VERNON BARTLETT, member of Parliament of Great Britain

Delivered over British Broadcasting System, February 28, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 398-399.

YOU probably heard of the old lady whose complaint against Hitler was that "he's such a fidget!" and it is in March that he becomes most fidgety. I suppose that is how the spring affects him.

It was in March that he took the very critical step of sending the German Army back into the demilitarised Rhineland zone; in March he occupied Austria; in March he broke all his promises about having no further territorial claims—promises he had made to Mr. Chamberlain at Munich: he broke those promises by invading Czecho-Slovakia. In March, too, he reintroduced conscription in Germany, and Mussolini then took the lead in organising a conference at Stresa with Mr. Ramsay MacDonald and M. Flandin to protest against this breach of the Versailles Treaty. But that was six years ago.

There is, however, no need for alarm and despondency. Even the dentist's chair is better than the dentist's waiting-room, and in the last month or two the British have taken the initiative away from Hitler. The sooner we get on with the business, the sooner it will all be over. General Wavell and the late General Metaxas between them have compelled Hitler to start on a military expedition in the Balkans which, until a few months ago, he had hoped and expected to avoid. I say "military expedition" because his main argument with the Bulgarians, the Yugoslavs, the Greeks and the Turks, is the presence near the Bulgarian and Yugoslav frontiers of anything up to forty divisions. He possibly still hopes that those divisions will win their victory without fighting. But six months ago, before Mussolini had made his supreme blunder of trying to bully the Greeks, Hitler still hoped to win his victory in the Balkans by economic pressure alone.

It is worth remembering that of the ten countries that have come under Hitler's rule, only five put up any military resistance. Austria, Czecho-Slovakia, Denmark, Hungary and Rumania surrendered without a fight; Poland, Norway, Holland, Belgium and France did not give in without a struggle. In the last few weeks there has been a terrific campaign in the war of nerves against Bulgaria and her neighbours to obtain their surrender without a fight. Rumours of impending German attacks are started, say, in Sofia; they are naturally telegraphed to London and New York where they appear in the newspapers as Sofia rumours. When they are sent back to Sofia by some Nazi news agency, the fact that they originatedin that city is carefully omitted, and the people there, saying to themselves that there is alarm in London and New York, become more gloomy and less able to resist Hitler's next attack. Remember that Hitler once wrote: "Our strategy is to destroy the enemy from within, to conquer him through himself."

The Balkans have a reputation that they do not altogether deserve. They are supposed to be warlike, but the vast majority of the peasants there—as, indeed, in every other country—want nothing better than to be allowed to live their lives in peace. Their standard of life is terribly low: in some Balkan countries it is an accepted thing that for some three months before the harvest they must live only a little above starvation level, and this despite the fact that they hardly spend more than a pound or two a year on articles bought in shops. They produce their own food and weave their own clothes.

Some of these countries—Rumania, for example—are potentially very rich indeed, but they have no capital with which to develop their wealth, and they are frightened of the political influence that accompanies capital borrowed from any of the Great Powers. But the very fact that they have oil or wheat, or whatever it may be, in such abundance may help to turn them into battlefields because one Great Power fears the growing influence of another in their territories. Before the last war, the rivalry between Germany and Russia was a disturbing factor: before this war, there was similar rivalry between Germany and France.

There are two other things to be said about the Balkans. One is that, more than anywhere else in Europe, there is an inextricable muddle and mixture of races. During the great periods of migration from the east, wave after wave of invaders swept in from Southern Russia or from Asia Minor. In each case some of the invaders settled in the Balkans, and because they had taken refuge in the mountains or were able to defend themselves in some other way, they escaped extermination when the next invasion came along. No man on earth could draw up frontiers in the Balkans which were both good frontiers to defend and also left no dissatisfied minorities on the wrong side of them.

Then there is the fact that most of the Balkan countries gained their independence only within the last hundred years. Greece, with the help of the British Navy, was declared an independent kingdom a hundred-and-nine years ago; but Rumania, for example, won her independence only in 1880. Possibly this helps to explain why the Greeks have defended their independence in this war so much more vigorously than the Rumanians—they have had more time in which to learn its value. But I suppose the more important factor is that the British Fleet could once more help Greece, whereas it could not help Rumania. But it is fairly clear that in all these countries, Hitler, with his genius for playing upon resentments, jealousies and injustices, for his own purposes, has found very favourable territory first for his business agents, then for his Gestapo, and then for his soldiers dressed up as tourists or humble workmen.

The interesting and encouraging point for us is that he has hoped he would be able to avoid this last stage and to keep his soldiers out of it. You will remember how years ago he began his campaign to get economic control. The Balkan countries had wheat or minerals or agricultural produce to sell, and could not easily find a market. Germany had no gold, but she offered to take over all their exports and to send machinery, chemicals and so on in exchange. But after a while these Balkan countries found that they were still selling their produce to Germany but were receiving in return articles that they didn't want. Every Balkan peasant probably has a couple of mouth-organs, a pair of excellent German field-glasses, and more than enough aspirin tablets to last him a lifetime. One of the main reasons why Bulgaria has allowed German soldiers, disguised as civilians, to crowd into the hotels of Sofia, is that for the last few years something like three-quarters of the country's foreign trade had been with Germany, which inevitably meant that a great deal of political influence came into the hands of pro-Nazis. Quite probably, if Hitler had only waited for another year or two, he could have gained control of the whole Balkan peninsula, could have brought all the Balkan governments into his new European Order, without spilling a drop of blood.

As it is, he is likely to be involved in a dangerous campaign. The fact that Mr. Anthony Eden and Sir John Dill, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, have gone to Ankara, is the best possible proof of the importance attached by the British Government to this eastern Mediterranean campaign. Also, it keep the Nazis guessing, and the more we can make them do that, the better. They have so often done it to us by careful and clever publicity arrangements when the two dictators have gone to say 'How-do-you-do' to each other.

As I see it, Hitler would be anxious to undertake a campaign against Salonika only if one of two things would result. The one would be that it opened the road towards the oil of Irak and the riches of the Indies. The other would be that it destroyed British control of the eastern Mediterranean. But even if you accept the more gloomy of the prophecies that have been knocking around during the last ten days, you can find no evidence that either of these things is likely to happen. It may be that the Turkish Government does not want its army to fight outside its own frontiers. I don't know if that is so, but even if it is, there can be no doubt at all that the Turks would defend the Dardanelles and the road into Asia. Again, it may be that the British will not wish to land a considerable force on the Greek mainland to defend Salonika. Again, I don't know. But I do know that, as a result of Mussolini's attack on Greece, the British now have bases, such as the island of Crete, from which they could prevent the Germans from making much use of Salonika even if they got there.

I noticed the other day that Mussolini's paper, the Popolo d'ltalia, was arguing that 'the British successes in Africa, far from being military successes, are merely the means for theatrical publicity'. That is certainly not the view of most people in Great Britain. They know that, as a result of these successes, General Wavell now has a large and experienced army in the Middle East available for use wherever the Commonwealth governments desire.

You might find it interesting to study the communications in the Balkans. The railways, such as they are, run from west to east rather than from north to south. The road over the Bulgarian mountains into Greece, on the way to Salonika, is a difficult one; the easier way to that city, down the valley of the River Varda, passes through Yugoslavia. The Yugoslav people, or at any rate those of them we used to call Serbian, showed in the last war what magnificent fighters they are, and they know that as long as Mussolini can close the Adriatic to their trade, Salonika is the only port through which they can reach the wider world. I believe it has been reckoned that for each division the Germans could push forward to Salonika, three more would be needed to improve and defend the lines of communication.

So much for the Balkans. I hope I have not spread among you alarm and despondency. The Greeks, who have so magnificently fought for their independence against Mussolini, show no sign of surrendering it to Hitler. The Turks show no sign that, if and when the time comes, they will fight with less courage than the Greeks—and their welcome to Mr. Eden shows where their sympathies lie. The Yugoslavs know that Hitler's advance to the Mediterranean would destroy their freedom. The Rumanians, and perhaps also the Bulgarians, will do a great deal to make the Nazi occupation of their countries costly and difficult. In order to save Mussolini, Hitler has started on a campaign which he may greatly regret. I hope that we, and the tough peasants of the Balkans, can make him do so.