The New Great State of the Balkans, Comprising the Serbs, Croats, and the Slovenes

By George MacAdam

[The World's Work, December 1918]

Of the many changes in the map of Europe, that seem imminent as the result of the Great War; none has a greater appeal to the historic imagination, none will be more potent in maintaining the future peace equilibrium of Europe, than the creation of a united Jugoslavic nation.

If the current of world events continues to follow its present course, there will be erected on the western half of the Balkan Peninsula, with the Danube and the Drave rivers on the north and Greece and Albania on the south, a new nation with an area of approximately 100,000 square miles (almost half the size of continental France) and a population of more than 12,000,000 (more than one third as many as live in continental Italy).

A united Jugoslavia will mean the national unification of a people who, though they have occupied this same territory for more than a thousand years—ethnically compact, homogeneous and enduring—have never before known national unity.

The Jugoslavs have lived in one of the bloodiest battle-arenas of the world—where the civilization of the West has met and struggled with the civilization of the East. Their land has been overrun from the West, from the East. As the spoils of war, it has been divided and redivided. Their conquerors have set one against the other. Religion, too, has divided them, and, for political purposes, the effort has been made to keep its prejudices fanned to white heat.

And thus, if the map of Europe is re-made according to present plans, a united Jugoslavia will be one of the most striking examples of the creation of a nation founded upon racial kinship, whose boundaries are fixed by ethnic limitation.

The greater part of the Balkan Peninsula is a land of mountains. With only a few breaks in the wall, the formidable Dinaric Alps shut it in from the Adriatic Sea on the west, just as the Balkan Mountains enclose it on the northeast. Between these two ranges is a network of mountain and upland and valley. But here is a geographic fact which has cost the country a fearfully heavy toll in blood and anguish: this network is cut from north to south by the valley of the Morava River flowing northward into the Danube, and the valley of the Vardar flowing southward into the Gulf of Saloniki. This natural corridor through the mountains, leading from the plains of Hungary to the Aegean Sea, is met by another natural corridor—that formed by the valley of the Maritza River—which leads eastward to the plains extending to the Bosphorus.

From time immemorial, these valleys have been the cross-roads of the continents of the Eastern Hemisphere. They were traveled by the trader and the warrior, by the hordes of peace and the hordes of war, To-day, these valleys are the routes of the vital Balkan railroads, the one leading from Belgrade to Saloniki, the other, from Belgrade to Constantinople, link in the Berlin-Bagdad Railroad. From both a military and commercial standpoint, the country commanding these valleys is one of the key positions of the world. The possession of this country was all that Germany needed to materialize into a reality her long-cherished dream of world-domination by means of a far-flung Mittel Europa; and it was to obtain possession of this country, that Germany started the Great War.

The Slavs made their first appearance in the Balkan Peninsula in the sixth century A. D. Like the Celts, the Goths, and the Huns who had preceded them during the previous five or six centuries, the Slavs came as a devastating visitation of wild men from the North. They came under the leadership of the Avars, a justly dreaded tribe of Asiatic origin. Before these recurring tides of barbarism, both the Greek and the Roman civilization had melted away, the peninsula north of the Aegean being left a desolate waste. In 559, the Avars and Slavs attacked Constantinople, and though they were defeated, they retained control, under Avar leadership, of the hinterlands. In 626, the invaders again attacked Constantinople. But they got to quarreling among themselves and were again forced to retreat. The Avars now disappeared from the Balkan Peninsula.

But the Slavs remained. During their joint occupancy with the Avars, the Slavs had spread over the Balkan Peninsula, from the region north of the Danube and the sources of the Save and Drave rivers in the Alps, to the coastal region of the Aegean and the borders of Albania, from the Balkan Mountains to the shores of the Adriatic. And despite centuries of invasion, war, conquest, oppression, and commercial strangulation, they have so remained ever since.

Early in their settlement of the Balkan Peninsula, the Jugoslavs broke up into tribes which gradually resolved themselves into three big groups: the Serbs, the Croats, and the Slovenes. These groups, with little infiltration, have continued until to-day; and so also have these groups continued to occupy their old territories. The Serbs are numerically much the stronger of the Jugoslavs. They occupy the modern Kingdom of Serbia (including Old Serbia and Northern Macedonia), Montenegro, and most of Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Dalmatia, and the districts north of the Danube—Batka and Banat. The Croats are second in numerical strength. They occupy Croatia, Slavonia, and the western parts of Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Dalmatia. The Slovenes, who number only about a million and a half, occupy Carniola, Southern Carinthia, Southern Styria, and a portion of Istria.

As a matter of fact, there is no such thing as a "Jugoslav." It is simply a handy term of inclusion, invented for the purpose of distinguishing under one name the Slavs of this region from other Slavs. The word "Suden-Slav" ("South- Slav") is said to have been made in Germany, and accepted by the Croats who have been more or less subject to German culture, and by them translated into the Slavic ("jug," in Slavic, means "the South"). But ask one of these people what he is, and not one of them will tell you that he is a Jugoslav. The Serb will proudly tell you that he is a Serb; the Croat, that he is a Croat; and the Slovene, that he is a Slovene.

But despite this division into these old and well-maintained groups, they all use practically the same language, Slovene merely being a dialect of the Serbo-Croat.

The differences between the various groups of Jugoslavs are those that have grown out of religion and politics. The Slavs of the Balkans had early been converted to Christianity. A point of great historic significance was the dividing line of the two dioceses—Italy and Dacia—which ran through Bosnia from north to south. In the eleventh century, when the Church divided between the jurisdiction of Rome and of Constantinople, those who lived to the east of this diocesan line went with the Greek Orthodox, those who lived to the west of it went with the Roman Catholic. The split, of course, was not quite so sharply drawn as this geographical line: for the most part, the Serbs were and are Orthodox; and the Croats and Slovenes were and are Roman Catholics. This fact has been artfully played, upon to keep the Croats and Slovenes loyal to Austria-Hungary.

The Serbs can boast of two periods of independence: one mediaeval, the other modern. The first began in the twelfth century, and lasted well on into the fifteenth century. Included within this stretch is the most lustrous period of Serb independence: the reign of the great Stephen Dušan who extended his empire until it reached from the Adriatic in the west to the Maritza River in the east, from the Danube to the Aegean. After the death of Dušan, the Serbs were unable to beat off the Turks invading from the south. But they did not succumb ingloriously: it was not until after the middle of the fifteenth century that the last remnant of the old Serb Empire passed under Ottoman rule.

The Serbian emancipation from Turkish rule was initiated in 1804. There then began a series of wars and treaties, which, stretching over a period of thirty years, finally resulted in Serbia being, recognized as an autonomous principality under the suzerainty of the Sultan. Serbia now entered upon a period of internal organization and development. With the increase of her military strength, we find the principality engaging in a number of campaigns to free the Serbs beyond its borders: In 1848, when the Serbs in southern Hungary rose against the Magyars; and again in 1876, when an anti-Turkish rebellion broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 1877, Serbia joined with Russia in making war on Turkey. Montenegro was already at war with the latter. By the Treaty of Berlin both Serbia and Montenegro achieved complete independence, and the territory of both was considerably enlarged.

By the cynical terms of this treaty, among other things, the administration of Bosnia and Herzegovina was "temporarily" given over to Austria-Hungary; and Montenegro was given a strip of coast with the small towns of Antivari and Dulcigno, both commercially useless, while Budua, commercially useful, was given to Austria-Hungary which already possessed Cattaro and the rest of Dalmatia.

The formation of her political districts and their representation, the restrictions upon trade, and the official discouragement of any increase in the very limited transportation facilities, were patent evidence that Austria-Hungary was aiming at the political and economic extinction of the Jugoslavs.

"The Serbs in Serbia were the only ones who could claim to be free," says Nevill Forbes, "but even this was a freedom entirely dependent on the economic malevolence of Austria-Hungary and Turkey. Cut up in this way by the hand of fate into such a number of helpless fragments, it was inevitable that the Serb race, if it possessed any vitality, should attempt, at any cost, to piece some, if not all, of them together and form an ethnical whole which, economically and politically, should be mistress of her own destinies. It was equally inevitable that the policy of Austria-Hungary should be to anticipate or definitively render any such attempt impossible, because obviously the formation of a large South Slav state, by cutting off Austria from the Adriatic and eliminating from the Dual Monarchy all the valuable territory between the Dalmatian Coast and the River Drave, would seriously jeopardize her position as a great power."

The Pan-Slav movement began to take definite shape. About 1906 those elements in Slavonia, Croatia, and Dalmatia which favored a closer union of the Serbs of these districts, formed the Serbo-Croat coalition party. Its scope was limited at first, but it soon widened. The governments of Austria-Hungary endeavored to counteract this movement by the activities of a vast, secret, political system. In October, 1906, Baron Aehrenthal became Minister of Foreign Affairs at Vienna, and he immediately instituted a strong anti-Slav policy.

In October, 1908, he announced the formal annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by Austria-Hungary. The arrests of members of the Serbo-Croat coalition party, accused of aiding the Pan-Serb movement, grew more numerous. Then came those infamous efforts to stir up the old religious discord between the Serbs and the Croats; the notorious Agram high treason trial, and the still more notorious Friedjung trial. The disgraceful discomfiture of the government in both of these trials, and the revelation of its nefarious intrigues, served to rally all the elements throughout the Serb and Croat provinces of the Dual Monarchy.

Then came the splendid offensives of the Serbian army in the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913. The moral victory which Serbia had achieved in the Agram and Friedjung trials, was now crowned by brilliant military victory. Serbia became the recognized leader of the Jugoslavs.

When the Great War came, a number of prominent Jugoslavs, recognized representatives of public opinion, were either abroad or effected their escape from their oppressed provinces. They rallied in London and elected a committee which has become known as the Committee of London. Dr. Ante Trumbić, President of the Croat National Party in the Diet of Dalmatia, late Mayor of Spalato, and late Member for Zara in the Austrian Parliament, was chosen President of the committee. Its sixteen other members included representatives from practically every Jugoslav province.

This committee "set themselves a great task, a sacred duty—laid upon them by the difficult and painful position in which their race is placed at present—the duty of informing the governments and the public opinion of their friends and allies among the nations of the actual condition of affairs in such Jugoslav countries as have the misfortune to be under Austrian rule, and of the just aspirations of their nation. Our race, variously known as Serb, Croat, and Slovene, is, nevertheless, despite three different names, but one people—the Jugoslavs. Our programme consists of the deliverance of all Jugoslavs from the Austrian yoke, and union with our free brothers in Serbia and Montenegro in one united state."

This programme was given a more official and specific character at the subsequent Conference of Corfu. The more important of these declarations are as follows:

1.   The State of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes—who also are known by the name of Southern Slavs or Jugoslavs—shall be a free and independent kingdom, whose territory shall be indivisible and all these three-named co-nationals shall have a single allegiance. This state shall be a constitutional monarchy, democratic and parliamentary, having at its head the dynasty Karageorgevic, which has always shared the national sentiments and has put above all the liberty and the will of the people;

2.   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;

5.   The three national denominations; Serb, Croat, and Slovene, are legally on an equal footing in the kingdom, and every one can use them freely at any occasion of public life and before all authorities;

10.   The Adriatic Sea—in the interest of liberty and equal rights of all nations—shall be free and open to all;

12.   The elections of the representatives of the national parliament shall be by universal, equal, direct, and secret vote; the same applies for the election in the municipalities and other administrative institutions. The vote will take place in each municipality;

13.   The constitution, established after the conclusion of peace by the constituting assembly, elected by universal, direct, and secret suffrage, will serve as a basis for the whole life of the state; it will be the beginning and the end of all authority and all rights by which the whole national life will be regulated. The constitution will give the people the possibility of exercising its particular energies in the local autonomous districts delimited by the natural, social, and economic conditions. The constitution must be adopted in its entirety by a certain majority, as ordered by the constituting assembly. The constituting assembly, as well as the laws voted by it, shall be valid only after the King's sanction.

This document was signed by Mr. N. Pashitch, the Prime Minister of Serbia, and Dr. Trumbić.

In April, 1918, in answer to the call of the Italian Committee, there was held at Rome the "Congress of the Oppressed Races of Austria-Hungary." The meeting included delegations of Italians, Czechoslovaks, Rumanians, Jugoslavs, Serbs, and Poles, together with representatives of the Allied Nations. After two days of deliberations, the following resolutions were adopted:

The representatives of the nationalities wholly or partly subject to the domination of Austria-Hungary—Italians, Poles, Rumanians, Czechs, Jugoslavs—have united in affirming as follows the principles by which their common action shall be guided:

1.   Each of these peoples proclaims its right to establish its own nationality and state unity and to attain full political and economic independence.

2.   Each of these peoples recognizes in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy the instrument of Germanic domination and the fundamental obstacle to the realization of its aspirations and its rights.

3.   The assembly consequently recognizes the necessity for a common struggle Against the common oppressors in order that each people may attain its complete liberation and complete national unity as a single, free state.

The representatives of the Italian people and the Jugoslav people are agreed in particular as follows:

1.   As regards the relations between the Italian Nation and the nation of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (known also under the name of Jugoslav Nation), the representatives of the two peoples recognize that the unity and independence of the Jugoslav Nation is a vital interest of Italy, just as the completion of Italian nationality is a vital interest of the Jugoslav Nation. And, therefore, the representatives of the two peoples pledge themselves to use their utmost effort to the end that during the war and at the moment of peace these aims of the two peoples may be fully attained in their entirety.

2.   They affirm that, the liberation of the Adriatic Sea and its defense against every actual and eventual enemy is a vital interest of the two peoples.

3.   They pledge themselves to resolve amicably in the interest of future good and sincere relations between the two peoples, the various territorial controversies on the basis of nationality and the rights of peoples to decide their own fate—and in such a manner as not to injure the vital interests of the two nations—to be defined at the moment of peace.

4.   The nucleus of one people which may have to be included within the frontiers of the other shall be guaranteed the right to have their own language, culture, and moral and economic interests respected.

After the Congress a delegation visited the Prime Minister of Italy, Professor Orlando, who addressed them at length, congratulating them on the accord that had marked the whole convention. In his address, he said: "I can tell you that no other people can understand you as we do and admire you and feel for you intense sympathy because no other people can understand as we do your sorrows and your aspirations, your sufferings and your hopes."

Here we have the chief forces which are making, or are apparently making, for the welding of the Jugoslavs into a compact, strong nation—a nation that, in agreement with an Italy also compact and strong, could bar any future effort that either Teuton or Magyar, or the old Teuton-Magyar partnership itself, could make to break through to the Adriatic, the Aegean, or the Bosphorus. If these programmes and resolutions are accepted at their face value, it would seem that there is at last to be peace in the Balkans, an end to the Teuton-Magyar dream of Mittel Europa.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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