The Balkan Question:
The Aspirations of Montenegro

[The Outlook, November 27, 1918]

Montenegro is a small country, a mountain country, poor country, and yet it has a long and heroic history of five centuries. In area it is about the size of the State of Connecticut, and it now has a population estimated at about half a million people. The Montenegrins are Slavs in race and are generally Orthodox Greek in religion. In the Middle Ages Montenegro belonged to the great Serbian Kingdom, but when that Kingdom was destroyed by the Turks, Montenegro established its own independence, and has maintained it, often against great odds, ever since. Mr., Gladstone once said: "In my deliberate opinion, the traditions of Montenegro in her struggles against Islam and the Turk exceed in glory those of Marathon and Thermopylae and all the war traditions of the world."

This is doubtless to some extent the picturesque rhetoric of a great orator, and yet it is true in substance. The traditional heroism of the Montenegrins has been manifested in the great European war. Montenegro entered the war in defense of Serbia, and thus became one of the Allies. She was beaten by Austria and Bulgaria, and her King, Nicholas, who is the father of the Queen of Italy, was exiled to France. For the first time in our history we have now at Washington a Minister from Montenegro, General A. Gvosdenovitch, who was appointed by the royal Government of Montenegro, which now has its seat in France near Paris, thus following the precedent of Belgium, which established its seat of government and its Court at Havre when the Germans crushed the Belgians. The Montenegrins are naturally proud of the fact that the present King and his dynasty were chosen by the Montenegrin people without any pressure from the Great Powers of Europe, In this respect they claim that their dynasty is unlike that of King Constantine of Greece, or of Ferdinand of Bulgaria, or of King Charles of Romania, who were imposed upon their respective peoples by the power of the Hohenzollern.

In order to understand clearly the aspirations of the Montenegrins and their hopes of what may come from the Peace Conference, it is necessary to say a word about the Jugoslavs, a term which has become suddenly more or less familiar to Americans. The term Jugoslavs means Southern Slavs, that is to say, those Slavs who live in southeastern Europe as distinguished from the Slavs of Russia or, the Slays of Bohemia, and Slovakia who will form the new Czechoslovak Republic. A glance at the accompanying, map will show the present geographical and political divisions of those people who aspire to be united in a Jugoslavic federation. These states or provinces, some of which until recently were component parts and under the yoke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, are Serbia, Montenegro, Herzegovina, Bosnia, Dalmatia, Croatia, and the Slovenes. The settlement of the Jugoslavic question depends upon the recognition of the rights of the states or provinces which will compose Jugoslavia. Each one of these states must have its political and geographical integrity recognized, and must be permitted to present to the Peace Conference at Versailles its own claims for justice and recognition.

Unfortunately, under the auspices of a group in Serbia, who may not unjustly be called Pan-Serbians, there was held in the summer of 1917 a conference on the island of Corfu, at which was promulgated what has since been known as the Declaration of Corfu. It was supposed to contain the political principles upon which the new Jugoslav nation should be erected. It professed to recognize the principles of liberty and popular sovereignty, but it contained, among other things, the following statements:

This state [that is, the new Jugoslav nation] shall be a constitutional monarchy, democratic and parliamentary, having at its head the dynasty Karageorgevitch, which has always shared the national sentiments and has put above all the liberty and the will of the people. The name of this state shall be "The Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes;" and the sovereign shall bear the title of "King of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes."

Observe that there is no mention here of Montenegro, and that the Declaration, without any popular referendum or vote, makes the Serbian King and dynasty rulers of Jugoslavia. It is currently reported in this country that there is a group of Serbians who are carrying on a propaganda, backed by the Declaration of Corfu, both in Europe and the United States, in favor not only the predominance of Serbia in a Jugoslavic federation, but of an actual absorption of Montenegro.

In order to get the Montenegrin point of view, a member of the staff of The Outlook recently sought an interview with the new Minister of Montenegro in this country, General Gvosdenovitch. The Minister, is an accomplished man, of wide European experience, who is a great admirer of the political and democratic principles of the American people. He believes that the Jugoslavic union should be a voluntary one, and not one imposed by any one of the component states or by outside political Powers. Minister Gvosdenovitch desires to have the American people understand, that what he and his Government ask is that the people of Montenegro shall be permitted to determine for themselves what their form of government shall be. In order to do this they insist upon the manifestly just claim that the political integrity and autonomous power of Montenegro shall be recognized. The Montenegrins ask that the Peace Conference at Versailles shall frown upon any attempt on the part of a faction (if there is such a faction) in Serbia to absorb Montenegro by force or by any kind of propaganda. When the political integrity of Montenegro is established and the expression of her rights is fully guaranteed, the Montenegrin people will then without question take part in a constituent assembly to form a federation of the Jugoslavia states, on some such basis as is outlined in the accompanying map. As to the effect of the Declaration of Corfu upon the Montenegrin people, Minister Gvosdenovitch said this, and permits us to quote his actual words:

"The Montenegrins have no quarrel with Serbia. On the contrary, they have many things in common with Serbia--language, culture, religion. They wish to be affiliated with Serbia, but their objection to the Pan-Serbian movement is that that movement insists upon the terms of affiliation, and the Montenegrins wish to determine for their part what shall be the terms or basis of affiliation. This is the whole question so far as the Montenegrins are concerned. For this reason I regret very much the Declaration of Corfu, because that Declaration instills into the minds of Montenegrins the fear that Serbia was trying to swallow her without consulting her. As a matter of fact, the Declaration of Corfu was the greatest cause of disunion between Montenegro and Serbia instead of being a bond of union, as those who made it professed that it was."

One other thing. While the people of the United States have recognized the heroism of Montenegro not only in this war but in past European conflicts for five centuries, she and her sufferings have been thus far overshadowed by the larger but not more dramatic and tragic sufferings of Belgium, Poland, and Serbia. Montenegro, when her political rights are established, hopes that the people of the United States and the Government of the United States will help her, not merely by relief funds, but by loans, as other small nations of eastern Europe have been helped. It is announced that even Czechoslovakia, which has only just been created, while Montenegro has existed as a political entity for five centuries, has negotiated a loan with the United States. The Montenegrin people trust that the United States will hold out to them the same kind of a helping hand. Montenegro, like the other Balkan nations, has some territorial claims which she believes are just. She believes that Cattaro and the ancient city of Ragusa should belong to her, which now appear on the map of Dalmatia, but she is willing to submit these claims to the Peace Conference at Versailles, provided her authority to send delegates to that Conference is recognized, as we think it should be recognized.

The sudden collapse of Germany, the complete abandonment of the doctrine of Pan-Germanism, and the acceptance by all the world of the principle, so often reiterated by President Wilson, that every peace-loving nation must determine its own institutions, make the Declaration of Corfu as obsolete as the Treaty of Berlin. It would be a negation of all that the United States and her allies have held to most persistently and in the face of supreme sacrifices if Montenegro, little in stature but a giant in spirit, should be denied the right to exist as an autonomous state under her own name and title.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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