Modern history





WHILE THE GREAT POWERS had been preoccupied with the League, the smaller powers had been busy polishing up their demands. On the evening of February 17, 1919, a telephone call came to the Hôtel de Beau-Site, near the Etoile. Would the delegation of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes please be ready to attend the Supreme Council the following afternoon? This sudden and typically capricious attention from the powers came as something of a relief. The delegation had been in Paris since the beginning of January, but its leaders had only appeared once before the council, on January 31, to counter Rumanian claims to the whole of the rich Banat, which lay between their two countries.

The Hôtel de Beau-Site had not been a happy place during those long weeks. The delegation, almost a hundred strong, comprised Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Bosnians and Montenegrins, university professors, soldiers, former deputies from the parliament in Vienna, diplomats from Belgrade, lawyers from Dalmatia, radicals, monarchists, Orthodox, Catholics and Muslims. Many of its members did not know each other; indeed, as subjects of Serbia or of Austria-Hungary, they had fought on opposite sides during the war. The delegation faithfully reflected the great dividing lines that ran through the Balkans: between Roman Catholicism in the west, and Eastern Orthodoxy; between Christianity in the north, and Islam to the south. The delegates from the Adriatic side, mainly Slovene and Croat, cared passionately about security from Italy and control over ports and railways that had once belonged to Austria-Hungary, but were indifferent to border changes in the east. The Serbs from Serbia, meanwhile, were prepared to trade away Dalmatia or Istria to get more territory to the north and east.

They were together in Paris because of an idea, one of those so popular in nineteenth-century Europe, that a common language meant a common nationality. They all spoke a South Slav (Yugoslav) language. While Slovenian had become a distinct language over the centuries, Serbian and Croatian were virtually the same except for one striking difference. Serbian, like Russian and Bulgarian, was and is written in the Cyrillic alphabet, borrowed from the Greek of the Byzantine empire, while Croatian reflected the Catholic and Western orientation of its people and used the Latin alphabet. While separate nationalisms had been growing in the Balkans before the war—Serbian, for example, or Croatian—so too had the dream that all South Slavs, whether still under Ottoman rule, inside Austria-Hungary, or already independent in Serbia and Bulgaria, belonged together in one great nation. What started with a few mainly Croat intellectuals and priests along the Dalmatian coast grew by the 1860s into jugoslovjentsvo—Yugoslavism—with a Yugoslav academy, schools, journals, all to promote unity among South Slavs. But was that going to be stronger than all the other forces, from history to religion, that marked them out, one from the other? The Yugoslav idea was always strongest among the South Slavs, especially the Croats, inside Austria-Hungary who feared that they were being made into Germans or Hungarians. 1 Those outside, in Serbia, for example, had an alternative and equally compelling vision, of a large nation-state built around themselves.

The state of the South Slavs—cobbled together from Serbia and the southern parts of the vanished Austria-Hungary—that emerged in 1919 was the result of both accident and hasty, often desperate choices. It was not even clear what the delegation or the new country it claimed to represent should be called. Made up of Serbia and the southern parts of the vanished Austria-Hungary, it eventually took the name Yugoslavia. The Peace Conference, contrary to what many people have believed since, did not create Yugoslavia—it had already created itself by the time the first diplomats arrived in Paris. Seventy years later, the powers were equally unable to prevent its disintegration. But the peacemakers in Paris had the ability to withhold territory from the new state, perhaps even destroy it. They were wary, with good reason, of ambitious nations in the Balkans. It would be a mistake to give the South Slav state a navy, Wilson thought: “It will be a turbulent nation as they are a turbulent people, and they ought not to have a navy to run amuck with.”2

In February 1919 the peacemakers had not yet decided whether to be good or bad fairy godmothers. Except for one. The Italian government would have preferred to strangle the infant state in its cradle. Italian nationalists were quick to cast Yugoslavia as their main enemy, the role having been left empty by the disappearance of Austria-Hungary. “To our hurt and embarrassment,” complained Prime Minister Orlando, “Yugoslavia will have taken the place of Austria, and everything will be as unsatisfactory as before.” Britain and France at first reluctantly went along with Italy and refused to recognize the new state. The United States, which had no love for Italy and Italian ambitions in the Balkans, recognized Yugoslavia in February; Britain and France did so only in June, partly in reaction to Italy’s intransigence, which at that point was threatening to break up the Peace Conference.3

Nicola Pašić, for many years prime minister of Serbia, headed the delegation. In his mid-seventies, with clear blue eyes and a long white beard that fell to his waist, he looked like a benevolent old monk. His private life was exemplary: he was deeply religious, and, although he had married a rich woman, he lived simply. He loved to sit in the evenings singing old Serbian folk songs with his wife and daughters. When he spoke in public, which he did rarely, he was slow and deliberate. (His Serbian was said to be full of mistakes.) He spoke only rudimentary French and German and no English at all. Perhaps because of this, he had a reputation for great wisdom. Lloyd George thought him “one of the craftiest and most tenacious statesmen in South Eastern Europe.” Like another Serb leader, in the 1990s, Pašić was a devious, dangerous old man who loved two things: power and Serbia. Few of his colleagues trusted him; he was, however, adored in the countryside, where most Serbs lived.4

Many people in Paris found the Balkans confusing. At his first meeting with Pašić, Lloyd George inquired whether Serbs and Croats spoke the same language.5 Only a handful of specialists, or cranks, had made it their business to study the area. What most people knew was that the Balkans were dangerous for Europe; they had caused trouble for decades as the Ottoman empire disintegrated and Austria-Hungary and Russia vied for control; and they had sparked off the Great War when Serb nationalists assassinated the heir to the Austrian throne in Sarajevo.

Pašić had been born when Serbia was already free, with its own prince, but he had grown up in a world marked by those long years of Ottoman rule. From Rumania south to Greece, the Ottomans had left their cooking, their customs, their bureaucracy, their corruption and, to a certain extent, their Islam. “Balkan” had become shorthand for a geographic area but also for a state of mind, and for a history marked by frequent war and intrigue. Their past had taught the peoples of the Balkans, as the proverb had it, that “the hand that cannot be cut off, must be kissed.” The cult of the warrior coexisted with admiration for another sort of man, like Pašić, who never trusted anyone, never revealed his true intentions and never took advice.6

Besides the Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Albanians, Bulgarians and Macedonians, the Balkan peoples also included the Greeks (who preferred to think of themselves as a Mediterranean race) and, depending on your definition, Rumanians (who preferred to talk about their Roman ancestry), as well as a host of minorities left behind by the tides of the past. The Jewish merchants of Sarajevo, the Italian colonies on the Dalmatian coast, the descendants of German settlers in the north, and the Turks in the south— these were also part of the Balkan reality.

At the heart of the region was Serbia. In Pašić’s childhood it was a simple place. Railways and telegraphs had not yet linked the little principality, as it then was, with the wider world. Apart from Belgrade, the capital, which had only 20,000 inhabitants, its towns were large villages. Its people lived, much as they had always done, from farming and trading. Pašić was one of the handful in his generation who had traveled abroad, in his case to Zurich, for higher education. His little country had great dreams, which he came to share: of a greater Serbia, reaching east and west toward the Black Sea and the Adriatic, sitting astride the great land routes leading down from central Europe to the Aegean. With the spread of nationalism in the nineteenth century, Serb historians rummaged the past to bolster their claims and bring all Serbs into the fold. “We got the children,” a schoolmaster told a traveler in Macedonia when it was still under Ottoman rule. “We made them realize they were Serbs. We taught them their history.” All over the Balkans, teachers, artists and historians were at work, reviving memories, polishing national myths, spreading a new sort of consciousness.7

The trouble was that it was not only Serbs who were awakened. As Churchill observed, the Balkans produce more history than they can consume. Where the blind Serb musicians sang of the great fourteenth-century kingdom of Stephen Dušan, stretching from the Danube to the Aegean, the Bulgarians looked to the tenth century, when King Simeon’s empire controlled much of the same land. And the Greeks had the grandest memories of all, going all the way back to classical times, when Greek influence spread east to Asia Minor and the Black Sea, and west to Italy and the Mediterranean. Even the brief possession of a piece of land centuries ago could be hauled out to justify a present claim. “We might as justly claim Calais,” the traveler pointed out to the nationalist schoolmaster. “Why don’t you?” he replied. “You have a navy.”8

Pašić was a founding member of the Serbian National Radical Party, founded in 1880, which advocated the liberation and union of all Serbs, including those in Austria-Hungary. Like so many Serb nationalists, he cared little about the Croats or Slovenes; they were Roman Catholic and looked to the West, while the Serbs were Orthodox.9 If Croats and Slovenes were to join Serbia, they would do so on Serbian terms, under Serbian leadership.

One by one, in little wars, simple and straightforward as they now seemed from the perspective of 1919, the Balkan nations had freed themselves from the lethargic embrace of the Turks. By 1914, all that was left of the European part of the empire that had once menaced Vienna was a toe-hold in Thrace and the great capital of Constantinople (today’s Istanbul). The new countries acquired the trappings of statehood: newspapers, railways, colleges, academies of arts and science, anthems, postage stamps, armies and kings, most of whom came from Germany.

In the turbulent world of Serbian politics, Pašić managed to survive, a triumph in itself. Death sentences, exile, plots, assassination attempts, car accidents: he outlasted them all. And he returned the favors to his enemies. The English writer Rebecca West airily dismissed rumors, probably true, that he had known about the plot to assassinate the archduke in Sarajevo: “Politicians of peasant origin, bred in the full Balkan tradition, such as the Serbian Prime Minister, Mr. Pashitch, could not feel the same embarrassment at being suspected of complicity in the murder of a national enemy that would have been felt by his English contemporaries, say Mr. Balfour or Mr. Asquith.” 10

In 1919, when the question of appointing a leader for the delegation going to Paris came up, Prince Alexander of Serbia, who was acting as regent for his senile old father, insisted on Pašić, perhaps to keep him away from Belgrade. To his considerable annoyance, Pašić found that he had to share power with a Croat, Ante Trumbić, the new foreign minister. Serbs and Croats tended to irritate each other. As a Serbian official once complained to a British visitor, “for the Serbs everything is simple; for the Croats everything is complicated.” And Trumbić was very Croatian. Fluent in Italian, with a deep love of Italian culture, he came from the cosmopolitan Dalmatian coast. While Pašić had been dreaming of destroying Austria-Hungary, Trumbić had sat in its parliaments. He had learned there to love precedents and quibbles and reasons why things could not be done. Although he spent much of his life working to create a Yugoslav state which would include Serbia, he regarded the Serbs as barbarians, deeply scarred by their long years under Ottoman rule. “You are not going to compare, I hope,” he told a French writer, “the Croats, the Slovenes, the Dalmatians whom centuries of artistic, moral and intellectual communion with Austria, Italy and Hungary have made pure occidentals, with these half-civilised Serbs, the Balkan hybrids of Slavs and Turks.” 11

By 1914, Trumbić was becoming convinced that the future for his people lay outside Austria-Hungary. In 1915, in company with a journalist and a young sculptor, he set up the Yugoslav National Committee in London to work for a federation of South Slavs, this time including Serbia. It seemed like yet another of the strange self-appointed committees pursuing lost causes that dotted the capitals of Europe. None of the powers contemplated the disintegration of Austria-Hungary (and they were not going to do so until 1918). Serbians had no interest in a federation, only a greater Serbia. If the South Slav lands of Austria-Hungary entered into Allied thinking at all, it was for use in bargaining. In 1915, in the secret Treaty of London, Britain, France and Russia promised Italy a large chunk of Slovenia and the northern part of the Dalmatian coast. Serbia, it was hinted, would get the rest of Dalmatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, perhaps even part of Croatia.12

Trumbić, now backed financially by the prosperous Croatian and Slovenian communities in North America, complained bitterly. Pašić and the Serbs refused to commit themselves to an alliance of equals. Trumbić was so discouraged that he talked of giving it all up and becoming a taxi driver in Buenos Aires. In London, however, his cause had attracted a small but powerful body of supporters, including Robert Seton-Watson, an independently wealthy scholar and linguist, and Wickham Steed, who had been The Times’s correspondent in Vienna before the war. Both men viewed Austria-Hungary with irritation; it was a corrupt and incompetent anomaly and they made it their self-appointed task to put it out of its misery. Wickham Steed had a particular enthusiasm for the Yugoslav cause. According to the British ambassador in Rome, this was because he had lived for years, “filially I believe rather than maritally,” with a very clever South Slav woman.13

Croatia and Slovenia, and Bosnia as well, remained part of Austria-Hungary during the war, and many of their soldiers fought loyally for the old empire until the very end. There were Croats, Slovenes and Bosnians, even Serbs, in the Austrian armies which bombarded Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, into ruins, which defeated the Serbian army and sent the Serbian government into exile, which occupied Serbia and which raped and brutalized the civilian population. Whatever their complicity in the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, the Serbians paid a very heavy price. More than 120,000 died in the war, out of a population of 4.5 million. By the war’s end, no matter how much Trumbić and his committee in London talked of South Slav unity, it was not easy for such recent enemies to see each other as brothers and sisters. On the other hand, it was not clear what alternative they had.

As Austria-Hungary stumbled from one military disaster to the next, its South Slavs turned, many with reluctance, toward independence. The Serbians, temporarily chastened by defeat and by the collapse of their great protector, Russia, were more receptive to the idea of a Yugoslav state. In exile in Corfu, Pašić met with Trumbić and, in July 1918, the two men agreed that Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, including those in Bosnia, whether Muslim or not, would be united into Yugoslavia, with the king of Serbia as ruler. Union with Serbia, whatever its drawbacks, seemed less frightening than independence as, at best, a country cobbled together from Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia and, at worst, two or three weak little states. Unwisely, the two sides put off discussing a constitution; the issue of federation (which the Croats and Slovenes wanted) or a unitary state (which of course Pašić wanted) was never settled. Trumbić can have had few illusions about how the Serbians saw the process of bringing together the different peoples. As one Serbian government official told him cheerfully, there would be no difficulty in managing the Bosnian Muslims. The Serbian army would give them twenty-four hours—no, perhaps even forty-eight—to return to the Orthodox faith. “Those who won’t, will be killed, as we have done in our time in Serbia.” Trumbić gasped. “You can’t be serious.” “Quite serious.” 14

In the months after the Corfu declaration Pašić quietly slid away from any real union. He worked behind the scenes to make sure that the Allies did not recognize Trumbić and the Yugoslav Committee as the voice of the South Slavs from Austria-Hungary. In October, just as the war was ending, he had a meeting in London with Wickham Steed, who still thought that he could sort out the remnants of Austria-Hungary into nice, rational patterns. Pašić would not be managed. He told Wickham Steed that Serbia had liberated the South Slavs from Austria-Hungary, that the Corfu Declaration had been intended only for propaganda, and that Serbia was going to be in control of any new state. Croats or Slovenes who did not like it were perfectly free to go elsewhere. “He alone was entitled to determine what policy should be followed; and those whom he employed had to obey orders.” Wickham Steed angrily accused Pašić of acting like a sultan, and the two men never spoke to each other again. 15

Apart from self-appointed experts such as Wickham Steed, few on the Allied side had given much thought to the future of central Europe and even less to the Balkans. The sudden disintegration of the Habsburg empire in the last weeks of the war raised huge issues. Would there still be some sort of rump state, with Austria and Hungary presided over perhaps by a different set of Habsburgs? Perhaps Croatia could become a new kingdom under an English prince. More practically, who was going to own the railway lines and the ports? What about Austria-Hungary’s fleet? The young Emperor Karl, in one of his last acts, handed it over to his rapidly departing South Slav subjects. Possibly because the Balkans had caused so much trouble already, the powers tacitly agreed that the borders settled with so much difficulty before 1914 would not be touched.

Well before the Peace Conference opened, the South Slavs had taken matters into their own hands. In Zagreb, capital of Croatia, a National Council of Croats, Serbs and Slovenes declared its independence from Austria-Hungary on October 29, 1918. The next step was not clear. Many still hoped for their own separate South Slav state. Many Serbs, on the other hand, were for simply joining Serbia. Trumbić and his supporters preferred a federation, but a considerable number of Croats wanted an independent Croatia. In that moment the choices all seemed open.

In reality, circumstances were closing them off. Although Pašić was forced by Allied pressure into forming a coalition government with Trumbić and representatives of the National Council in Zagreb in the second week of November, he made sure that the new government was stillborn. “The old man,” reported Seton-Watson, “changes his mind every few hours and cannot be trusted for five minutes with his word of honour or anything else.” Meanwhile, on the ground, the Serbian army, as an Allied force, was fanning out into Austrian territory, first to the north and south and then, by November, into Croatia and Slovenia. French authorities, nominally responsible for the sector, watched benevolently. France had no objection to a strong Yugoslavia, which could act as a brake on Italy. When the Yugoslav Volunteers, some 80,000 soldiers from Austria-Hungary now fighting on the Allied side, tried to win Allied recognition as an occupation force, Pašić, to the dismay of Trumbić and other Croats, made sure that this did not happen. With Serbian encouragement, self-appointed assemblies in the Banat and in Bosnia-Herzegovina voted, hastily, for union with Serbia. In Montenegro, with Serbian troops in occupation, a national assembly, apparently made up only of those with the correct views, voted equally hastily to depose their king and to unite with Serbia.16

In Zagreb, the National Council started to panic. It had no forces of its own, and law and order were collapsing as peasants attacked the landlords and gangs of looters ransacked shops and businesses. Along the Adriatic, Italian troops were seizing the major ports. Demonstrators began to appear in the streets of Zagreb demanding union forthwith with Serbia. On November 25, the National Council hastily resolved to ask Serbia for a union. Crucial details, such as the constitution, were to be settled later. A Croat nationalist leader warned in vain against scuttling to Belgrade like “drunken geese in the fog.” Surely, many thought, the powers would protect them. An American military man reported from Slovenia in early 1919: “The government and the people emphasize their almost pathetic confidence in the United States as their champion in Paris. They constantly refer to President Wilson and his doctrines, and believe that their national claims and their national security, like those of other small states, can only be gained if these doctrines are accepted and carried out as the basis of the peace settlement.”17

On December 1, 1918, Prince Alexander of Serbia proclaimed the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. The name itself was a problem; non-Serbians generally preferred “Yugoslavia” because it implied a true union of equals. Serbians wanted a name that enshrined the central importance of Serbia. It was an uneasy marriage, among peoples who had been divided by years of history, religion, cultural influences and war. Were the claims of a common ethnicity and similar languages enough to make it last? Outsiders were dubious; as an American military observer wrote in the spring of 1919, “while the Government officials all take pains to protest (‘too well’) that the Serbs and Croats are one people, it is absurd to say so. The social ‘Climate’ is quite different. The Serbs are soldier-peasants; the Croats are passive intellectuals in tendency. The Public Prosecutor, from whom one would expect a certain robustness of mind, told me frankly that the Croats had given up struggling against their Magyar oppressors long ago, and had devoted themselves to the arts.” He noticed that the Serbian army was increasingly unpopular throughout Croat territories.18

Matters were not helped by the conviction of many Serbians that they had simply increased Serbian territory rather than founded a new country, and by their suspicion that the Croats and Slovenes and Bosnian Muslims had not tried very hard to liberate themselves from Habsburg rule. Although Serbs made up less than half of the population, they ran the new country. The Serbian army became the Yugoslav army; Croatian units from the old Austrian-Hungarian army were disbanded. In the bureaucracy and government, Serbs held almost all the important posts. Belgrade remained the capital and the kings of Serbia became kings of the new state. Alexander took an oath of allegiance to the constitution on June 28, 1921, the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, the most important day in Serb history.19 It was a beginning from which Yugoslavia never recovered.

At its very first meeting in Paris, the Supreme Council found itself dealing with the fallout from Yugoslavia’s sudden appearance. Should Montenegro be treated as a separate country or not? The hasty vote to unite with Serbia and depose the royal family had produced an armed struggle between the Greens, who refused to recognize the union and who were largely monarchist, and the Whites, who did. (The colors, and the divisions, appeared again after the collapse of Tito’s Yugoslavia in 1991.) Sonnino, speaking for the Italians, objected to separate representation on the grounds that Serbs and Montenegrins were virtually the same. Italy clearly did not want Serbia to have any more voice than it already had. (The Italians were quite content to see Montenegro swallowed up by Serbia, hoping that the mouthful would be particularly indigestible.) Lloyd George and Wilson were for hearing both sides. Wilson was particularly worried about Montenegro’s rights to self-determination: “The action of Serbia had gone some way toward prejudicing his mind against Serbia. It was absolutely against all principle that the processes of self-government should be forced.” The difficulty, as the statesmen all agreed, was to find anyone, in the existing circumstances, who could speak for the Montenegrins. Should the Allies recognize the king? Balfour said mordantly, “We pay for him.” (Britain and France had subsidized Nicholas during the war and had not yet got around to withdrawing recognition from him.) Wilson objected that the king could speak only for himself and not for Montenegro.20

Much greater problems were waiting for the peacemakers, but there was something fascinating about Montenegro. The country, a spot on the map between Croatia and Albania so small that few people could find it, was absurd and heroic, remote and beautiful. According to Montenegrin legend, when God was creating the world he had its mountains in a sack which broke and rained them down in a crazy jumble on what became their homeland. The Montenegrins themselves matched their mountains. They were perhaps the tallest people in Europe, handsome, proud, brave and indolent, given to endless drinking of coffee and the rehashing of old victories and blood feuds. The intrepid traveler Edith Durham took against them when she inadvertently looked into the bag of one noble warrior to discover his booty of sixty human noses; from that point on she transferred her considerable loyalties to the Albanians. 21

Their legends had it that Montenegrins were descended from the Serbs who had fled from the invading Turks in the fourteenth century, and it is true that they were Orthodox like the Serbs and spoke a version of Serbian. From their mountains they had fought the Turks to a standstill and so had remained an autonomous Christian island in the Turkish Muslim sea. Their rulers, until the middle of the nineteenth century, had been warrior bishops. The modern dynasty was established by the last bishop of the line in 1851, when he tired of being celibate and married. His nephew, Nicholas II, had been on the throne since the 1860s.

Nicholas himself, as it happened, was in Paris, living on a dwindling pension from Britain while his daughters worked as dressmakers. Opinion was divided as to whether he was a cunning buffoon (Rebecca West’s view) or a great warrior king (the opinion of Edith Durham, who spent a happy evening with him before the war swapping toasts). There was a whiff of the Middle Ages about King Nicholas: his insistence on leading his own troops into battle, on dispensing justice from his seat under an ancient tree, even the magnificent medals he awarded himself and his friends so copiously. His capital, Cetinje, was a large village, the Bank of Montenegro a small cottage, and the Grand Hotel a boardinghouse. The Biljarda, his old palace, was named after its much prized English billiard table, which had been hauled up the mountainside, and looked like an English country inn. His new palace was more like a German pension, with the royal children in folk costume doing their lessons with their Swiss tutor while the king sat on the front steps waiting for visitors. Franz Lehár used Montenegro as the model for Pontevedria in The Merry Widow.22

In fact, Nicholas was not quite the quaint figure he seemed. He had been educated, in France, among other places, and he had maneuvered with such success in the tangle of Balkan politics before the war that he had enlarged the size of his tiny state four times. He had also married his children well, two daughters to Russian royal dukes, one to the king of Italy and yet another to the king of Serbia. He had dreamed of Montenegro’s absorbing Serbia; it was not meant to happen the other way round. He still hoped, in 1919, that he could regain the throne he had lost during the war.

Montenegro had been dragged into war when Austria invaded in 1916; Nicholas fled to Italy with what many on the Allied side thought was surprising alacrity. The suspicion that he had done a quiet deal with the Austrians followed him to Paris. The British Foreign Office regarded him as a treacherous ally, who probably was guilty as charged. It soon became clear in the discussion of Montenegro’s representation that no one in Paris had any idea what the state of affairs on the ground was, and so it was decided to hold the question of Montenegro’s representation open. It remained so until the Peace Conference ended.23

Nicholas did what little he could. He tried to give Colonel House one of his most magnificent orders; he wrote to Wilson; he issued optimistic memoranda claiming part of Bosnia for Montenegro. He did not get any response: there were, after all, more pressing issues than the fate of a country of 200,000 people. Fresh votes were held, under Serbian supervision, which seemed to show that Montenegrins wanted to be part of Yugoslavia. At the end of 1920, France withdrew its support for Nicholas; in the spring of 1921, Britain did likewise. Nicholas died, still in exile, in the spring of 1921. His grandson, an architect in France, has said that he has no interest in reclaiming the throne. Montenegro remains, as it has done since 1918, an uneasy part of Yugoslavia.

When the Yugoslav delegation finally got its chance to speak to the Supreme Council in February 1919, it brought a set of demands that had been put together with as much haste as the nation itself, and with as much wrangling. In an attempt to satisfy everyone, six out of the country’s seven borders were open for discussion. Only the border with Greece, in the former Ottoman territory of Macedonia, was left alone. In the west, Slovenes insisted on Klagenfurt, on the north side of the southern spur of the Alps, as security against what was left of Austria. Otherwise they would be satisfied with the old boundaries between Austria-Hungary and Italy. Pašić, as usual, played his own game. His main interest, and that of the other Serbs, was to push eastward into Bulgaria and north of the Danube, taking a swath of Hungarian territory. Among other things, this would protect their capital, Belgrade, which had been in a uniquely exposed position, separated from a hostile Austria-Hungary by the width of a river. The Serbians had chosen it despite this drawback because it lay at the intersection of the Danube as it swept down from the north and the Sava River, which flowed from the west, at one of the most important strategic points in southern Europe. From the north and the west traders, pilgrims or armies had to pass by Belgrade if they wanted to go on to Greece and the great port at Salonika, or eastward through Bulgaria and on to Constantinople. The city had been besieged, defended, taken, sacked and fought over by Romans, Huns, Crusaders, Turks, Austrians and of course the Serbians themselves.24

On the afternoon of February 18, Milenko Vesnić, a Serb, started by apologizing that he did not yet have a full memorandum to lay before the powers. There were “certain difficulties,” he murmured. Vesnić, easily the best speaker in the delegation, was smooth, affable and well traveled. His rich, attractive wife was friendly with the new Mrs. Wilson. Putting up a map, he laid out the basis for Yugoslav claims: reward for virtue (Serbia was a loyal ally, and the South Slavs within Austria-Hungary had done their best to disrupt the enemy war effort), self-determination, security. Slovene and Croat colleagues followed to explain away the contentious claims: to the largely Italian town of Trieste, the Hungarian provinces of the Backa and the Baranya north of the traditional boundaries of Croatia, the Rumanian-speaking parts of the Banat and the German-speaking areas around Klagenfurt. They denied that they were asking for non-Slav areas: the old censuses were unreliable, and in any case the Austrians and the Hungarians had deliberately suppressed Slavic schools and culture. Why, a man had been arrested in the old empire for asking for a railway ticket in Slovene. Even Yugoslavia’s supporters were troubled. “Have they lost all sense of proportion and good sense?” asked a friend of Seton-Watson.25

Yugoslavia was already in possession of much of what it wanted in Austria-Hungary by the time the Peace Conference started—Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Slovene heartland in the old Austrian province of Carniola, much of Dalmatia and of course the old kingdom of Croatia— but it wanted still more. The delegation asked for two little scraps in the west known as the Medjumurje and the Prekomurje, where Croatia met Austria and Hungary, and, further east, the Baranya and the Backa, part of the rich southern Hungarian plain. Hungary had few friends in Paris: it was not only a defeated enemy but looked about to fall into revolution. The main question to be determined by the Peace Conference was how much of Hungary Yugoslavia could reasonably have. The Medjumurje and the Prekomurje were largely Croat and Slovene (although the Hungarians tried to claim otherwise) and, after some discussion, were handed over. The fate of Baranya and Backa, however, became tangled up in the dispute between Rumania and Yugoslavia and took much longer to settle.

To all the Balkan nations, the disappearance of Austria-Hungary was as exhilarating an opportunity as the defeats of the Ottoman empire before the war. Each wanted as much as it could get: self-determination for itself but not for its neighbors. Already during that confused period in October 1918 when Austria-Hungary sued for peace and then vanished from history, Balkan governments had started to stake out possession, moving their armies in. New bodies popped up like mushrooms after a storm: workers’ councils, soldiers’ councils, councils of Croats, Macedonians, Greeks. It was not clear who was behind them, but there seemed no end to them and no limit to their demands.

Greece wanted the rest of European Turkey; so did Bulgaria. Both Greece and Yugoslavia contemplated a division of Albania. Rumania and Bulgaria could not agree on ownership of the Dobrudja, which stretched along the west coast of the Black Sea. Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria all wanted more of Macedonia. There was fine talk of saving civilization and fighting for right and honor; underneath were the calculations of realpolitik. In the heady atmosphere of 1919, it was madness not to grab as much as possible. Balkan statesmen claimed to admire Wilson; they talked the language of self-determination, justice and international cooperation, and they produced petitions, said to represent the voice of the people, to bolster their old-style land grabbing. They showed beautifully drawn maps. “It would take a huge monograph,” wrote an American expert, “to contain an analysis of all the types of map forgeries that the war and peace conference called forth. . . . It was in the Balkans that the use of this process reached its most brilliant climax.”26

The peacemakers had little to guide them in adjudicating all the claims. Wilson had mentioned the Balkans in the Fourteen Points, indirectly when he talked of the “freest opportunity of autonomous self-development” of the peoples of Austria-Hungary, and more directly when he said that Rumania, Serbia and Montenegro should be set on their feet again. He also promised that Serbia should have access to the sea, without specifying how, and that the Balkan states, under the benevolent eye of the powers, should all become friends “along historically established lines of allegiance and nationality.” What that last meant was not clear but it suggested a disregard of both recent history and the national mix in the Balkans.

There was also a feeling that loyal allies should be rewarded. Serbia ought to have something for its sufferings—ports on the Adriatic, perhaps, or, at the very least, access to the Aegean. Greece and Rumania ought to collect on some of the promises handed out so freely during the war. Bulgaria and Ottoman Turkey deserved to pay the penalty for joining the wrong side. What they could pay was another matter. The Ottoman empire did not have much left in the Balkans, and Bulgaria was broke and had already lost a great swath of territory in 1913.

The British were largely indifferent to what happened in the Balkans, as they were to most of Central Europe, so long as British interests, whether commercial or naval, were protected. They preferred strong and stable states because those would act as a barrier to a revived Germany or Russia. While “gallant little Serbia” had its devoted admirers, as did Montenegro and Albania, the British government was not prepared to spend British force or British money to secure its well-being.27 France, by contrast, was guided, as always, by its need for protection against Germany. Ideally, an enlarged Serbia and Rumania and, to the north, Czechoslovakia and Poland would provide such a forceful counterbalance that Germany would never dare to attack France again. And if a strong Serbia kept Italy honest, so much the better.

Geography forced Italy to think seriously about the Balkans. While Italians were generally delighted to see the end of their hereditary enemy Austria-Hungary, and the liberals, at least, sympathized with the small nations struggling to gain their freedom, Italian nationalists did not want any other power to achieve dominance in the Balkans, whether a Bolshevik Russia or a new South Slav state. The nationalists would shape Italian policy in an increasingly belligerent and expansionist direction. Because it feared a strong South Slav state, Italy was prepared to back the demands of its neighbors Rumania, Austria and Bulgaria. In Paris, Sonnino insisted that the competing claims of Italy and Yugoslavia must be discussed only by the Supreme Council. He feared, with reason, that a committee of experts would worry about the fairness of the frontiers, not about what Italy had been promised during the war. That story is part of the wider dispute between Italy and its allies which nearly wrecked the whole Peace Conference.

The Americans, in the Balkans as elsewhere, saw their role as that of honest broker, cutting through the thickets of the old diplomacy to apply the brave new standard of self-determination.28 Unfortunately, the truth about populations in the Balkans was not easily discovered. The practice of defining oneself by nationality was so new that many inhabitants of the Balkans still thought of themselves primarily in terms of their region or clan or, as they had done under the Turks, of their religion. Were Serbs and Croats alike because they spoke virtually the same language, or different because the former were mainly Orthodox and used the Cyrillic script and the latter were Catholic and used the Latin? Where did the Macedonians belong—with the Greeks because of their history, or with the Slavs because of their language? How could you draw neat boundaries where there was such a mixture of peoples? How could you leave people together who had come to fear each other? On the population maps of the Balkans the patterns were rather pretty, a pointillist scattering of colors and an occasional bold blob. On the ground it was less pretty, a stew of suspicions and hatreds bubbling away.

The borders drawn through the region left in their wake unhappy minorities and resentful neighbors. And at its heart was the new Yugoslavia. It had formed itself, but the peacemakers recognized it and padded out its borders in a series of separate committees. The result was a country three times bigger than the old Serbia but with even more enemies. The new state took in Montenegro, Slovenia and Bosnia from Austria; Croatia and part of the Banat from Hungary; and pieces of Albania and Bulgaria. What was involved, as so often at the Peace Conference, was not merely the land and the fate of its inhabitants, but the future web of alliances on which the peace of Europe would depend.

Austria, Hungary and Bulgaria, the defeated, mourned their losses, both of territory and of their people. Only Greece in the south was friendly to the new country. Within Yugoslavia, peoples who had little in common except language never agreed on a common interpretation of what the country meant. Yugoslavia paid a heavy penalty for its gains during the Second World War, when its neighbors, with much help from Germany, seized back the land it had won at the Peace Conference and its peoples turned on each other. Although the communist leader Tito managed to put the pieces back together again, seventy years after the Paris Peace Conference had first recognized its existence Yugoslavia started to decompose into its separate components, disappearing for perhaps good as a country in March 2002. Its neighbors watched it uneasily, as they had been doing since 1919.

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