Classic Podium: Going to war over the Balkans

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The Independent Culture
From a speech by David Lloyd George, the chancellor of the exchequer, made

at the beginning of the

Great War, in which Serbia was an ally of Britain

(21 September 1914)

THE HISTORY of Serbia is not unblotted. Whose history in the category of nations is unblotted? The first nation that is without sin, let her cast a stone at Serbia. Trained in a horrible school, she won her freedom with her tenacious valour and she has maintained it by her courage. If any Serbians were mixed up in the assassination of the Austrian Grand Duke they ought to be punished. Serbia admits that.

The Serbian government had nothing to do with it. Not even Austria claimed that. The Serbian prime minister is one of the most capable and honoured men in Europe. Serbia was willing to punish any one of her subjects who had been proved to have any complicity in that assassination. What more could you expect? She sympathised with her fellow countrymen in Bosnia. That was one of her crimes. She must do so no more. Her newspapers were saying nasty things about Austria. They must do so no longer. That is the German spirit.

Serbia undertook to give orders to the newspapers not to criticise Austria in future, promised not to sympathise with Bosnia, said she would have no public meetings at which anything unkind was said about Austria. But that was not enough. She must dismiss from her army officers whom Austria should subsequently name. Those officers had emerged from a war where they were adding lustre to Serbian arms, and she wondered whether it was their guilt or efficiency that prompted Austria's action. The officers were not named. Serbia was to undertake to dismiss them, and the names were to be sent on subsequently.

Can you name one country in the world that would have stood for that? It was a difficult situation for a small country. But how did Serbia behave? It is not what happens to you in life that matters; it is the way in which you face up to it. Serbia faced up to the situation with dignity.

Then came Russia's turn. Russia had a special regard for Serbia. Serbia was a member of her family, and she could not see Serbia maltreated. Austria knew that. Germany knew that. And Germany turned round to Russia and said: "Here, I insist that you shall stand by with your arms folded whilst Austria is strangling to death your little brother." What answer did the Russian Slav give? He gave the only answer that became a man. He turned to Austria and said: "You lay your hands on that little fellow, and I will tear your ramshackle empire limb from limb." And he is doing it.

That is the story of the little nations. The world owes much to little nations and to little men. This theory of bigness - you must have a big empire and a big nation and a big man - well, long legs have their advantage in a retreat. Frederick the Great chose his warriors for their height, and that tradition has become a policy in Germany.

Germany applies that ideal to nations. She will only allow six-foot-two nations to stand in the ranks; but all the world owes much to the little five-foot-five nations. The greatest art of the world was the work of the little nations. The most enduring literature of the world came from the little nations.

It is a great opportunity. It only comes once in many centuries to the children of men. For most generations sacrifice comes in drab weariness of spirit to men. It has come today to you, it has come today to us all, in the form of the glow and thrill of a great movement for liberty.

Some have already given their lives. There are some who have given more than their own lives. They have given the lives of those who are dear to them. I honour their courage. Those who have fallen have had consecrated deaths. They have taken their part in the making of a new Europe, a new world.

We have been living in a sheltered valley for generations. We have been too comfortable, too indulgent, perhaps, too selfish.

And the stern hand of fate has scourged us to an elevation where we can see the great everlasting things that matter for a nation, the great peaks of honour we had forgotten, duty and patriotism, and, clad in glittering white, the great pinnacle of sacrifice pointing like a rugged finger to heaven. We shall descend into the valleys again, but as long as the men and women of this generation last they will carry in their hearts the image of these great mountain peaks, whose foundations are unshaken, though Europe rock and sway in the convulsions of great war.