I recently acquired a small painting of no great value beyond the fact that is is an eyewitness rendering of the crackup of Western civilization. Painted by a German soldier, it depicts a column of soldiers at Verdun in 1916. When my eye falls on it these days, my mind turns to Tito.

The following words appeared recently in an official Yugoslav denunciation of something published by Moscow's obedient servant, Bulgaria: ". . . and a serious threat to stability in the Balkans." Those nine words should send shivers down the spines of those who know the parts of the past that did most to make the present the mess it is.

A character in a short story by Saki (H. H. Munro) says that the trouble with the Balkans is that they produce more history than they can consume locally. The spark that ignited the war that damaged the world more than any war before or since (and killed Saki) was struck in Sarajevo, which is now in Yugoslavia. It was struck by Gavrilo Princip, the young Serb who assassinated Archduke Ferdinand.

Princip was given to quoting Nietzsche: "Insatiable as flame, I burn and consume myself." The events he set in train consumed the world of Edwardian stability. That world may have been, as Barbara Tuchman says (in words from an Edgar Allen Poe poem), a "proud tower": While from a proud tower in the town Death looks gigantically down.

That world has its faults, but it never produced a Stalin. By the time the First World War turned Europe's spirit into something like the artillery-churned moonscape at Verdun, a Corporal Hitler had been brought into German life, Lenin had been brought into world history, and the forces were loose that were to lead to the Second World War.

At Sarajevo-plus-66, notice the nature of Yugoslavia, a product of the First World War. It is, to some extent, an improvisation masquerading as a nation. In his fine book "The Yugoslavs," Dusko Doder writes that it is a nation with two alphabets, three religions, four languages, five nationalities and six constituent republics. Yugoslav Macedonians were under Turkish rule unitl 1912. Sarajevo, which will be the site of the 1984 Olympics (if there is an Olympics, and a Yugoslavia, and a 1984), has nearly 100 mosques. There are almost two million Yugoslav Moslems.

Recently, pedestrians along Fifth Avenue were showered with glass when a bomb blasted a Yugoslav bank office in a Manhattan skyscraper. Croatian "freedom fighters" claimed credit. Perhaps they are the ones who recently blew up a Yugoslav travel agency. In 1976, Croatian terrorists hijacked a U.S. jetliner and forced The Washington Post to publish their denunciation of Yugoslavia as an interruption of Croatia's 13 centuries of national sovereignty.

The Croatian National Congress, based in New York, recently ran a large, fierce ad in The New York Times, promising: "Yugoslavia Will Not Survive." It said that Croatia, one of Yugoslavia's constituent republics, has a population (nine million) and area larger than half of Europe's states, and has a right to secede because of "the principle of national self-determination proclaimed by President Woodrow Wilson." That principle has been used to justify much mischief, and was part of the powder that blew apart the Hapsburg Empire.

Tito was born into that empire. His lavish living has earned him the title, "The First Communist King," and A.J. Taylor, the historian, calls Tito the last Hapsburg. Like the Hapsburg kings, Tito rules a steamy goulash of religious, ethnic and cultural ingredients. He has been, literally, a man on horseback.

A former soldier, who was a 23-year-old partisan fighting the Nazi occupation forces in Yugoslavia in 1942, remembers this episode: "We were practically surrounded. We were hungry, badly dressed. We were in a pitiful state. . . . All of a sudden this man galloped in from the woods on a white stallion. He had on a fur cap, a jacket, tall riding boots. We knew right away who it was. He looked so fresh, so young, though he was 50 years old."

When the man on the white stallion dies, a First World War soldier will have died. While Corporal Hitler was fighting on the Western Front, Tito, too, was fighting for the Central Powers on another front, a sergeant major in the Austo-Hungarian army. And when Tito dies, the last leader produced by Hitler's war will have left the stage.