Thoughts on the 1883 Timok Rebellion (2006)

December 5, 2006

By Matt Johnson

1. The late 19th century in Serbia is typified by one overarching social phenomenon: the rise of the Radical Party. This party combined the zadruga, the agrarian communal and familial socialism, with the emergent nationalism of the newly freed Balkan Orthodox people. It stood firmly for decentralized agrarian communes, a limited monarchy, and a retaining of the ancient system of farming known in the Balkans. Even the use of money was suspicious, largely because the rise of this party came as a direct result of increasing indebtedness due the “modernization” of the crown, financed by bankers in France and Austria.

The Radical program, one the press became freer, and Radical agitators took to the zadrugy, became more and more popular. The message was a simple one, and the earlier secularism of Serbian socialism under Svetozar Markovic became more and more Orthodox, though without ever losing its decentralizing edge, an edge which dictated Radical party policy right until the present day.

Debt, forced modernization, urbanization and bureaucratization all saw the corrupting of a Serbian national life that, largely due to its isolation and decentralized structure, was likely the most pristine in Europe. There was no corruption because there was nothing to corrupt: most Serbian villages were inaccessible to government agents from Belgrade, a situation well respected by villagers and foreign travelers alike. Nothing destroys liberty like roads, as the Roman empire quite well knew.

Serbian state building, like all state building, is a depressing affair. The only “theory” that bothered Serbian intellectuals in the middle of the 19th century is the extent to which the peasants (over 98% of the population in 1850) were to be coerced into supporting modernization. “Progress” was measured, as was quite common in the pre-World War I world, in the extent to which agricultural life was destroyed and peasants were forced to come to the cities for work. Mid-19th century Serbian intellectuals claimed that Serbia could not become “European” unless “industrialization” was brought about. It was brought about, in fits and starts, all financed by foreigners, specifically filtered through Vienna, which meant high taxes, conscription and debt and many other evils the Serbian peasant had never known before. Peasants were considered not to have “interests” per se, and that the state alone had interests. Since all foreign money went through state channels, and the formerly Austrian Serbs leaking back into Serbia from exile went into state service, the state increasingly was considered the only true actor in social life. The fact that most peasants had little idea of the nature of the “state” simply egged the bureaucracy onto corralling them into state structures in the name of “progress.”

2. 19th century Serbian life, as Gale Stokes has brilliantly laid out (cf. Politics as Development: The Emergence of Political Parties in 19th Century Serbia (Duke, 1990)), was, politically speaking, the development of a “party consciousness,” something that is contemporaneous to state building. Factions need something to fight over, hence, the state apparatus creates parties. All told, by the 1870s, three basic approaches were informally mapped out. The first was the “conservatives,” largely to be found around the pro-Austrian monarchy of Milan Obrenovic. It was generally an anti-national faction, believing that it was to being Serbia into the European “family of monarchies.” It was a proto- aristocratic party which identified the crown with the state, and the state with Serbia’s membership in Europe. It was ecumenist in religion, in that religious differences should not interfere with Serbia’s being a part of the Austrian royal life. Of all the factions, this was the most anti-peasant, and the peasants, when informed of this group, usually responded in kind, since it was this faction that was the most pro-Austrian, and hence the closest to the crown, and hence to the forced modernization program of Milan. Eventually, this faction began to call itself “Progressive.”

Secondly, there were the “liberals.” This was a more national group, and sought an expansionist Serbian state based around a modern economy tied to France (and occasionally to Russia, though increasingly, in the realm of finance, they were one and the same) rather than Austria. It was basically irreligious. It, unlike the “conservatives,” believed in a free press and the de-fanging of the royal house. It believed the Obrenovic line of Serbian royalism was too strong, and that the parliament (the skupitsina) should have more power, specifically in that royal ministers should be approved by the legislature.

Add to that the Radical party, the latest of the Serbian movements, and Serbian politics is basically complete by 1875. The Radicals were specifically formed so as to challenge the urban, intellectual base of the other two parties. The Radicals explicitly were revolutionary, decentralist, and national in orientation. They were openly populist, making the common sense case that the Serbian intellectuals in Belgrade and Nis were isolated from the overwhelming majority of the population in the hinterlands, and hence not only did not understand their needs, but were openly contemptive of the actual existence of any specifically peasant “interest.” For both major Belgrade parties, peasants were the raw material for “national development” rather than people in their own right. In this, they follow without deviation, albeit belatedly, the mentality of the scientific revolution and enlightenment.

3. Several variables helped radicalize the Serbian peasantry, and in the process, created the famed regionalist and decentralist party system of the Radicals that allowed them to take over the state later in the 19th century. Conservatives and Liberals merely thought that the peasants should do them homage, and did not bother to campaign in the hinterlands. The radicals, however, sought the creation of regional and local headquarters in order to accurately gauge the interests of the peasantry and organize campaigns from that. The first was the Requisitions Scandal, then the Bonteaux Loan, and finally, the assassination attempt on King Milan.

Briefly: these three events radicalized the Serbian population, particularly in the far east of the country, near the Timok river, traditionally the most anti-Turkish and rebellious element of the Serbian agrarian population. The Requisitions Scandal concerned the repayment of war debts. The Serbian army requisitioned supplies from the peasantry in order to supply the army during its 1876 war with Turkey. Peasants were given receipts and promised repayment. Few peasants took the state seriously and, as Stokes writes that since most peasants “despaired of any payment for them, a lively speculative market had developed in which some operators had accumulated a very large number of them.” Eventually, the state took a major loan from abroad in order to repay these receipts (since now, elite speculators were demanding payment), and, as a result, fraud was rife. Many proto-oligarchs faked receipts, made outlandish claims, and ultimately a well-publicized trial of several outraged the peasantry, since they had paid for all of this. It became emblematic of modernity in general and the result of the slowly developing mercantile economy.

Secondly, the Bonteaux Loan was yet another fruit of modernity. The Serbian state under Liberal and Progressive domination, sought modernity and any price and equated modernity with railroads. The liberal legislature had taken a loan from the General Union Bank of Paris, though a oily intermediary named Bonteaux. Soon, in 1881, a major speculative boom broke out in Paris (partially due to the floating of large amounts of paper to Eastern Europe), leaving the bank completely without funds. As Stokes describes it, the Serbian government did not panic, since they were under the impression that loan repayment was not an issue if there was no initial construction. Yet, as it turns out, the Liberal Finance Minister Mijatovic had secretly made an agreement, in exchange for a huge bribe, to repay these bonds regardless of construction, hence putting Serbia on the hook no matter what, all for his own enrichment. Stokes writes, “Mijatovic was contemplating fleeing to America.” Eventually, other financial institutions sought to bail Serbia out, and agreed to take on the loan and begin construction. It should be noted that banks in both Vienna and Paris had no difficulty bailing Serbia out, so long as Milan and either the Progressives or Liberals were in power, since they were guaranteed increasing modernization projects. These banks made it clear later that any Radical association with politics would lead to a cutting off of credit.

However, through endless corruption, railroad construction was slow, sloppy, dominated by foreign workers and widely seen as based on corruption and government isolation. Serbian debt was absurdly high, the government seen as isolated, and the railroad was a mess. Even worse, Milan himself was dabbling in General Union stock (and took a bath), providing the Radicals with more impetus to go into revolutionary opposition. Since only the Radical party had rural centers, they were able to get the work out on all the secret deals and corruption that the Liberals and the crown were engaged in during the Bonteaux scandal. In reality, there was a tiny oligarchy in Belgrade who sought to use these scandals to feather their own nest, isolated form the population, and dependent on a bureaucracy controlled either by Conservatives or Liberals. All the while, the Radical were methodically building their rural constituency and engaging in hands-on assistance to farmers in need.

Lastly, the assassination attempt on Milan, was, like all these things, conveniently blamed on Radical agitation. In 1881, Milan sought to win over peasant opinion by touring the countryside, with, to put it nicely, mixed success. Milan was often jeered, as the Radical movement had done its work. Milan did not speak the language of the peasantry, and would lecture at them rather than seek out their views.

Milan was seen as a buffoon. Jovan Djaja, a radical leader, said in a popular speech, “This is the modern way of conquest: Draw some nation into your sphere of influence, entangle in with debts, economically ruin it, and then defend your conquest with guns” (quoted in Stokes, 253). Milan, soon after, left for a European tour, where he was clearly more comfortable with others than with Serbs. He spent a fortune of state money living lavishly, and losing quite a bit in Paris casinos. The Radicals continued their agitation.

In October of 1882, on his return, a woman sought to shoot him in the Orthodox Cathedral of St. Mark’s in Belgrade. The woman was the wife of a major radical leader, Jevrem Markovic, and the Radicals were completely blamed for the assassination attempt. The police response was outrageous, and Milan’s reaction was extreme. Police and army caravans lashed out at villages considered sympathetic to Radical populists, and armed peasants normally fought back. A low level civil war spread through rural Serbia throughout 1883. It was the fact that the peasants were so capable of fighting back against Serbian regulars (albeit poorly trained) is one of the major realizations that led to the Timok Rebellion proper, and of course, Timok cannot be understood without reference to it.

For the average peasant, given the well organized data of the Radical party’s local organizations, the ideological supposition, one not entirely false, was that to be pro-Austrian was to be anti-peasant. For the peasantry, Orthodoxy was the central element of personal identity, and that Orthodoxy was Serbian, that beautiful and non-repeatable synthesis of Slavic and Greek aesthetics capped by the unique institution of the Slava. Therefore, if Serbia needed allies, they needed to be Orthodox as well. Hence, the Radicals supported alliances with Russia, and the peasants did so as well. Therefore, to be pro- Austria was to be anti-Russia (which was certainly the political reality of the time), and to be anti- Russia was to be anti-peasant. The Serbian intelligentsia in Belgrade had largely abandoned Orthodoxy except in the most vulgar perfunctory form, and hence religion had no political significance. But the last straw in terms of peasant patience concerned the banning of peasant retail institutions in urban Serbia. For the isolated Belgrade bureaucrat, the state was to form the peasant, not the other way around. The banning of peasant retail had been an issue in Serbian politics for some time, but it proved the clear isolation and anti-agrarian bias of the urban intelligentsia, most of whom had been educated in Austria.

4. In September of 1883, the Radical Party, without any surprise, swept the legislative elections in the face of universally recognized attempts by the Belgrade System and its financial backers to destroy the party. Police were used to keep peasants from voting, and scattered rioting was reported through the countryside. Then as now, the Radical victory was nullified. Then, it was by Milan, who demanded the legislature shut down and the Radicals not take their seats. Today, after major Radical victories in the Serbian parliament, it was NATO and the EU that demanded the manipulation of the government to keep the Radicals out. The System, operating from Washington D.C., even brokered an unthinkable deal between the Serbian Socialists and the former DOSsies solely in order to keep Radical participation from politics. The national-populism and agrarianism of the Radicals was not permitted in “civilized” politics, then or now.

For Milan’s part, it was his support of Austria that demanded the final decision. In short, the banks in Austria demanded a Serbia dependent upon them, rather than from Russia. The international recognition of Milan as “King of Serbia” (a major issue for him) derived from Viennese banks believing that the debt into which Milan plunged Serbia will ultimately benefit them, and, ultimately, the Austrian crown that would completely dominate (or destroy) the Serbian economy (either option was fine from the Viennese point of view). This explains the eventual closing of the Austrian border to Serbian cattle right after the Radical victory. From the bankers’ point of view, the Radical demand for a Serbian national bank independent of both France and Austria was the real reason Milan and his Austrian sponsors wanted the Radicals banned from politics. The Radicals had demanded as part of their official platform the sole raising of funds from Serbia proper, and from no other source. If any help was to be sought, it was to be from Russia, a scenario the Austrian crown could not absorb.

Afterwards, Milan drove the Radicals from public life using substantial police pressure, and the atrocities against villagers continued. Milan, truth be told, was now itching for a fight, a means to militarily wipe out the Radicals and those eastern peasant communities who supported them. The Timok Rebellion was that excuse.

The rebellion was, if the literature be believed, based on two things: the refusal of Milan to recognize the outcome of the September elections (Misha Glenny’s thesis), or the disarming of the Serbian population under Milan’s order’s (Gale Stokes’ thesis). Of course, Stokes’ idea is far more complex than the introduction of the new German Mausers into the Serbian army, though Glenny, always rather simple in his historical approach, claims it was solely a matter of Milan’s lack of recognition of the elections, though he, true to form, will never speak of the financial element to this decision. As this paper has shown thus far, it was a very complex set of causes, though, in a very general way, can be reduced to the age old fight between a conservative peasant and a government–with its own prestige at heart–willing to force modernization on a peasantry, uniformly called “backward” as a rhetorical device to justify the liquidation of peasant tradition.

Peasant political ideology in the Slavic world, prior to their being dragooned into the army or into the industrial economy was pure national anarchism. It was the stress on the religious and ethnic component of identity, with a great deal of hostility to the state which, certainly in the 1880s was anti- national, seeking support from banks in Paris and Vienna rather than from internal sources (in fact, this writer is willing to make the claim that Liberals and Conservatives in Serbian politics in the 1880s were two factions to an extent controlled by French and Austrian finance capital respectively). Orthodoxy and ethnicity (itself heavily religious in tone) was the basic sense of identity of the Serbian peasant. But this included the more amorphous ideas of family liberty through the zadrugy, regional autonomy and the concept of a national militia rather than a professional army. All of this was violated in the process of the rebellion.

The efficient cause of the fighting was indeed the attempt to disarm the peasantry. After the army’s battles with the peasants sporadically before, there were many, Milan at the head (after the attempt on his life) who no longer trusted the peasant classes. These were the descendants of the haiduks– decentralized bands of rebels against the Ottoman occupation–decendants of a people who spent the last 300 years living a life below the radar of the arrogant Islamic occupiers. Their entire life was one of resistance and the constant readiness for battle. They, to put it mildly, were an extremely difficult group to control. The Radical idea was very simple: does it make any sense to have fought this long and hard for independence only to hand over Serbia to Parisian or Viennese bankers and their puppets? There was no peasant that did not understand such a simple yet profound question.

The excuse for disarming the peasants was that the new Mauser rifles were too advanced for the peasantry to store and maintain. Hence, the army was to confiscate the old rifles, then keep the new Mauser’s at state magazines. Of course, no one took that seriously, because the lack of technical expertise to maintain a Mauser had nothing to do with confiscating the older weapons. The peasantry realized quickly what this truly was: Milan’s attempt to keep the Radicals out of power forever by disarming the peasantry in the Timok valley, always the stronghold of rebellion, Orthodoxy and Radicalism. Stokes writes:

Under the Ottomans the Serbs could not bear arms as a rule, so when the First and Second Uprisings expelled the Ottomans the ordinary Serbian make overcompensated, coming to feel by 1850 that a man was undressed in public if he did not appear with a weapon. The widespread distribution of arms during the Ottoman wars did nothing to lessen the sense that the rifle was man’s true support (281-2)

This writer chafes at Stokes’ condescending “overcompensating” remark, since she skillfully explains precisely why this was not an overcompensation, but an aspect of Serbian life, dictated by the humiliation of Ottoman control, and being called a “raya,” or “cattle” by the Ottoman authorities. As in Montenegro, the rifle was a symbol of independence against imperialism, and more than a symbol, the very reality of the fact that independence only comes with bloodshed, and there is nothing inherently wrong or “evil” about this. It remains, however, a concept foreign to the modern schoolmarm or university hack.

Refusing to listen to pleas for “calm” from the bourgeois politicians, the eastern Serbs quickly and effectively organized. Shooting the men sent to confiscate what they considered, though 200 years of fighting, to be their birthright, a rifle, Milan dedicated his reign to destroying these peasants at any cost. Under the older concept of the popular militia (as opposed to a standing army), the peasant kept his rifle at home. He was to bring it to the proper muster in time of war, with food and ammunition. It was this that drove the Turks out of Europe. Thus, there was a deeper situation here, one that took place in nearly all European nations at one time or another, the idea that a popular militia is just that–popular. It cannot be used against the interests of the ethnos since it was the ethnos, at least when mobilizing for war. The new professional army, however, proved its mettle and fought against the peasantry. One might even say that this rebellion was in fact an all out civil war, one between the old popular militia with out of date weapons, and the new standing army, financed directly by Viennese bankers. It is worth noting that local priests were some of the most militant of the leaders of the popular militia (Stokes, 285). She also mentions how jittery Milan was, calling the newly minted officer corps to his chambers, telling them how terrible their position would be under the Radical “rabble.”

Unfortunately, the rebellion was suppressed, largely because the troops stood firm, and, importantly, because it was geographically isolated in eastern Serbia. Like the defeat of Pugachev in Russia, the Jacobites in England, Shay’s Rebellion in America, and even the American War Between the States, the victory of the central state meant many things. Chief among them were:

  • The continued and unabated indebtedness of the agricultural classes, which was particular acute in Serbia. There is an exact correlation between the penetration of the state into the Serbian hinterland (a long and slow process) and peasant indebtedness. Penetration of the state meant penetration of financial capital, and that penetration meant the creation of centralized agricultural units, and that meant the destruction of the stable, self-reliant and liberty-loving zadruga system. The zadruga had few supporters in Belgrade, and none in Vienna. Only in Russia did this system receive at least token support.

  • The increasing centralization of political power, should be considered a given, since this is one of the major causes of the above rebellions. However one slices it historically or morally, centralization must mean, by its very constitution, the rule of elites, and that those elites will develop interests of themselves and the state, separate from the people they are supposed to rule. Though it is rarely articulated in this way, this concern is one of the central ideas of populist rebellion throughout history. So far, the rebels have never been wrong.

  • The demoralization of the truly patriotic forces of the nation. This is subtle, but important. In Serbia, the Radicals, widely seen to have “led” the rebellion (and idea highly exaggerated), fell to pieces, and eventually, after the reign of Milan had come to an end, under the charismatic Nikola Pascic, the Radicals were to be reborn, but as a party of the city. Once the rebellion failed, the radicals thought that only through institutional reform (rather than direct peasant agitation) can Serbia be saved. It is the Radical position to this day.

  • After Timok, Serbia became an increasingly centralized political entity, eventually becoming part of Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia is a result of the failure of the Timok rebellion. Without the defeat of the rebellious peasant zadrugy, the increasing centralization and isolation of the ruling classes would have been impossible.

  • Lastly, the destruction of the peasant economy and the introduction of centralized agricultural units was a direct result of the Timok rebellion. As all the literature shows, the penetration of capital into the countryside through state power meant the destruction of the zadruga, the Serbian family and the local, self-sufficient local economy. Of course, this in turn leads to the dislocation of peasant populations and the disruption of peasant traditional life and the centrality of Orthodoxy. Without Timok, Tito could never have been successful, and Yugoslavia could never have come into being. It took the destruction of the traditional peasant way of life in order to permit these forces to emerge and to become dominant.

By way of conclusion, it might be said, with some trepidation, that world history in the modern era is based upon the battle between peasant tradition, marked by the primacy of religion, family, decentralization, agriculture and self-sufficiency, and that of modernity, marked by centralization, industry, schedules, oligarchy, democracy and ideology. This basic pattern is replicated in the American Civil War, Shay’s rebellion, Pugachev and Razin in Russia, the Pilgrimage of Grace in England, the Gaelic rebellions in Ireland, Cossack resistance in Ukraine, and nearly all peasant religious, ethnic and anarchist rebellions around the world. It is one and the same battle. The victory of the forces of modernization comes about through better weaponry and scientific leadership methods over the primal rage of the exploited peasants. Furthermore, in the 20th century, legitimate peasant movements, such as in Latin America and south Asia, have been hijacked by Marxist revolutionaries in the name of the Enlightenment. It is the unholy alliance of modern science, ideology, economic theory, secularism and modern global capitalism that has destroyed the peasantry, and dragooned what’s left into the factory. Modernity is one large human rights abuse.