193: Versailles Pt. 10 - A Kingdom for the Serbs, Croatians, and Slovenes


The war had started with an ultimatum to Serbia, Serbia would also be there when it was over.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 193: A Kingdom for the Serbs, Croatians, and Slovenes. Thank you to Nick, Matthew, Mark for Patreon support. The First World Ear had started in 1914 after an ultimatum had been delivered to Serbia, today we will revisit the Serbians to discuss their goals at the Paris Peace Conference, and what they ultimately achieved. With the Austro-Hungarian Empire no longer in existence the leaders of Serbia saw an opportunity to finally realize one of their greatest dreams, the creation of a large Slavic state in the Balkins. It would be called Yugoslavia, and it would incorporate the areas of pre-war Serbia along with most of the southern territories of the former Empire. These southern areas of the Empire was populated by primarily Slavic people and even before the war there had been discussions about trying to gain either independence or at the very least greater autonomy within the Empire a movement that actually had some level of support among Austrian politicians, while it met staunch opposition from the Hungarians who did not want the see the Dual Monarchy become a Triple Monarchy. All of those conversations were in the past though, and there was no longer any Empire, and so the representatives of the new Yugoslavian state, which would create itself before the Peace Conference even started, came to Paris in the hopes that they would be able to use the conference to achieve more of their objectives, and also to seek legitimacy for the new country. The problems that they would encounter during the conference were very similar to some of the other new countries in the east: they were trying to get support for various territorial claims, but many of those making decisions in Paris barely understood the situation in the east at all, let alone the ramifications of moving borders around. While they were not totally successful in achieving their aims, at the very least after the Conference was over Yugoslavia would exist, it would have most of the territory it desired, and it would be at peace with its neighbors.

The delegation of the new country would be led by two men, the first was a Serbian named Nikola Pasic. He had been the Prime Minister of Serbia since 1912 and as such was the obvious choice to represent the country in Paris. He was joined by a Croatian, Ante Trumbic, who was the first Foreign Minister of Yugoslavia. These two would both come to Paris and would both influence the future of their country, but they had very different ideas about what that country should be. For the Serbians, and for Pasic first among them, Yugoslavia was to be structured like a Greater Serbia, the Serbians would be in control, and essentially they were just going to expand their borders out a bit. Trumbic, a Croatian, hoped for something quite different, instead of a larger Serbia he hoped for an equal partnership between the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. An American military observer would write in the spring of 1919 that “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.” while a Serbian official would complain to a British visitor that “for the Serbs everything is simple; for the Croats everything is complicated.” There are just a few examples of how both the Serbs and Croats saw each other and how outside parties saw them. Both groups had important disagreements with each other, and in many ways they would never really reconcile, although at Paris in the years after the war they were perhaps at their most unified. Even though they would never fully come together, it was not for lack of trying, because attempts to unify their viewpoints began before the end of the war, in July 1918.

It was in July that Pasic and Trumbic would meet on Corfu, a location required by the fact that Serbia was still occupied by the Austro-Hungarian Army and so the Serbian government was in exile. The two men agreed on the basic premise of the creation of Yugoslavia, which would be a large country with the King of Serbia as its official ruler. However, they did not really get into the deals of exactly what this union would actually look like. They instead just agreed on the big picture, with detailed decisions being left for later. It should be noted that Trumbic and the Slovenes, Croats, and Bosnians fully realized that joining into a country that would always have a majority Serbian population could be problematic, but they also felt that they did not have much of a chance to do anything else. They feared that if they did not join with Serbia they might find themselves occupied by somebody else, and even if they did form their own independent country they might not be strong enough to protect their borders.

Just like the other areas of the former Empire, Yugoslavia was actually fully formed before the Paris Peace Conference had even started. After the agreements made at Corfu the Southern Slavs of the Empire started to take the situation in hand. By the end of October they, like so many other minorities, declared independence, a declaration made by the National Council of Croats, Serbs, and Slovenes which met in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. While Trumbic and some other leaders had already kicked off talks with the Serbians, not all of the Southern Slavs wanted to actually join with Serbia, with their concerns being that they would be dominated by the Serbians, and instead they wanted for form a separate and independent state. It would be in November, after Pasic agreed to form a coalition government with Trumbic and the Croatians that the Serbians would begin what I guess you might call a soft conquest. They did this through several political maneuvers that were designed to cement their power. In the Banat region, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and in Montenegro the Serbians made sure that national assemblies voted to join with Serbia.

In Montenegro this efforts was not even hidden, and was instead the vote was held with Serbian soldiers at the doors. The Serbians also used their political ties to achieve other objectives like when a unit of 80,000 formerly Austro-Hungarian soldiers tried to gain official recognition as the occupation force of pars of Yugoslavia, when this happened Pasic made sure that this recognition was not given, because he wanted the Serbian army to be the only recognized military force in the region. The Serbians were also apparently behind demonstrations in Zagreb which demanded an official union with Serbia. This then led to a vote in the National Council which voted to ask Serbia for a union on November 25th. Then on December 1 Prince Alexander of Serbia proclaimed himself the leader of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, a Kingdom that is more commonly known at Yugoslavia. Even at this point the exact details of the new Kingdom were not decided, and still the various groups had very different views about the new country.

The delegation that would be sent to Paris for Yugoslavia was just as diverse as the country itself. Most importantly they represented two very different concerns about the future of the country. For those in the west like the Croatians and Slovenes their greatest concern was the Italians. They were deeply concerned about Italian encroachment on their lands that they considered their own while at the same time being concerned about other Croatians and Slovenes being put under Italian control. They also wanted to make sure that as much of the old Austro-Hungarian infrastructure like railways and ports stayed within Yugoslavia. One of these ports would be Fiume, which we discussed a few episodes ago. The Serbians on the other hand were far more concerned with the borders to the east and the north. Both sides would have gladed traded away territory on the other side of the country if it meant that their own requests were granted. The Serbians would eventually do this when trying to settle disputes with Italy, which the Slovenes would not be happy about. One of the interesting facts about Serbians and Croatians is that they spoke almost the same language, there were a few differences, but they were veyr close, but they were written in totally different alphabets. Serbian was written in Cyrillic while Croatian was written with the Latin alphabet. This was cuased by how the influence between East and West had ended up falling out in the centuries before the first world war. This would not cause too many problems during the war or at the conference, but is interesting none the less.

When the delegation arrived in Paris the political moves were already underway. They hoped for at least three, maybe even 4 votes in the Conference Assembly which put them on par with Romania, Belgium, and Greece. However, when someone finally ran the numbers on the planned allocations they realized that this would create a very large assembly, and so the Supreme Council decided that the smaller countries should only be given two seats each. When Wilson then proceeded to announce that Brazil, yes that country which was halfway around the world, was going to get three votes there was basically a riot among the smaller nations of Europe. Eventually, after official protests from the Yugoslavs and Belgians, and even the threat of a Belgian walkout, both countries regained their three votes. However, it was not three votes for Yugoslavia, or for the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, but instead three votes for the Kingdom of Serbia. This was due to the pressure from teh Italian who, even at this early stage, were already moving against Yugoslavian ambitions and they saw the delaying of the formal recognition of Yugoslavia as just one way to weaken the new country.

The future of Yugoslavia would depend, at least to some degree, on the views of the major powers at the Conference. However, they would never be high on their list of priorities. This was not just a problem for Yugoslavia but also many of the other countries of Eastern Europe that grew out of the remnants of Austria-Hungary. While the country existed on the ground, it did not have any official recognition from other governments, and in fact the only agreement about the territory with Yugoslavia came from the Treaty of London with the Italians, which had bargained away chunks of Slovenia to the Italians to bring them into the war back in 1915. Speaking of the Italians they did not want Yugoslavia to exist at all, and early in the conference they would be able to influence Britain and France to try and make this desire a fact. The British were mostly indifferent about what would happen in the Balkans, they just did not care that much. They certainly were not going to get militarily involved, or economically involved, and they were not going to make concessions anywhere else to change the situation in the Balkans. The French were slightly more involved, they did want to create a strong Yugoslavia that could ally itself with France and other countries in the East in an alliance against Germany, but when it came down to details they were pretty non-committal. Knowledge was also very poor about the region, in his first meeting with Pasic Lloyd George would even ask if the Serbs and Croats even spoke the same language. About the only guiding principle for the British and French was their general desire to see loyal allies rewarded, which would look good for them, but this did not really translate into anything concrete, more just a general feeling. It was really only the Americans that had a strong view of what the Balkans should look like, but this was rooted more in principles and ideas rather than actual physical and geographical details. The official position of the Americans would eventually be stated as “The ultimate relationship of the different Balkan nations must be based upon a fair balance of nationalistic and economic considerations, applied in a generous and investive spirit after impartial and scientific inquiry. The meddling and intriguing of great powers must be stopped and the efforts to attain national unity by massacre must be abandoned. . . . We are strongly of the opinion that in the last analysis economic considerations will outweigh nationalistic affiliations in the Balkans, and that a settlement, which insures economic prosperity is most likely to be a lasting one.” This general lack of concern and details among the other leaders allowed the Italians to hold some power over the area. They had exact desires, specific objectives, and it would not be until the relations between Wilson and Orlando began to sour that they would be directly challenged. Unfortunately for the Yugoslavs, the views of the Supreme Council, which had started as mostly just ambivalance, would slowly deteriorate. This was due at least in part to the fact that Yugoslavia had territorial disagreements with so many other countries. Italy, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, and Greece, none of the borders were firmly established, and so their constant role in clashes with other countries began to degrade their standing in the eyes of the Supreme Council.

Regardless of the views of the Allied leaders there were two constraints on their actions that they themselves had created during the war. The first was the secret Treat of London that they had signed in 1915 with the Italians and the second was the secret treaty that they had signed with Romania in 1916. The Yugoslavs did not know of the existence of these treaties when they arrived at the conference, although they rapidly found that they would have a long road in front of them if they hoped to successfully fight back against them. It would be several weeks after the conference had started before the Yugoslav delegation came before the Supreme council, and when they did they would be joined, quite unexpectedly, by the Romanians. This would set the tone for the rest of the conference for the Yugoslavs, constantly at odds with their neighbors over various border disputes. Fortunately they did at least have a solid base to negotiate from, their country existed and during the fall of Austria-Hungary and immidiately after they had been able to take most of what they wanted, or had gotten the areas to join them politically, either way they were in possession of many of the areas that they hoped to gain. Many of those areas were up for debate, but being in the position of already occupying them was an important piece of leverage. While there were many questions about the borders the two most important became how much of Hungary the new country would control and what the precise borders with the Italians would be.

For the first issue, how much of Hungary Yugoslavia would receive, they came into conflict with Romania over an area called the Banat. The Banat was desired by both countries, was currently under the control of the Serbians, but had been granted to Romania in the treaty that brought them into the war in 1916. Eventually, and after many discussions, the Conference would draw a line that did its best to separate the Romanians and the Serbians in the Banat between the two countries, although very little thought was given to the large numbers of other ethnicities. This was kind of a textbook example of how many people thought the Conference should work, delicately finding the best possible, although not perfect, border betweent wo countries. On the other end of the spectrum was the Italian border. We discussed the actions of the Italians a few episodes ago, and it would be the arguments of the border with Yugoslavia that would cause the Italians to briefly leave the conference all together. This step from the Italians was important because it allowed the other countries to provide formal recognition to the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, a recognition that the Italians had been blocking for the entire conference. When the Italians returned to Paris in early May negotiations between the two sides continued, including a very od setup suggested by the American diplomat, House. House’s recommendation was that the Yugoslavs and the Italians be setup in two different rooms, and then the Americans could act as a go between in the middle. The hope was that this would allow the two sides to proceed with negotiations without ever haivng to actually see each other, which would have caused more arguments. This did allow some negotiations to occur, although it did not result in any kind of actual agreement.

Back in Yugoslavia the Italians were doing their very best to undermine the government of the new country. Hundreds of Italian agents worked their way through the country sowing internal discord. Their goal was to use money to pay off individuals and organizations, newspapers, the clergy, government officials, really anybody who had any power within the country, they wanted them to be on the Italian payroll. One American, Lieutenant King, would say that “The Italians are choking Croatia by their occupation of Fiume and are doing everything to cause discontent and trouble, both there and in Slovenia. They are determined to break up Jugo-Slavia if they can.” While this did cause some problems for the Yugoslavs when it came to support within the country, it would not cause enough problems to prevent the country from continuing to exist and continuing to push for its objectives in Paris. Part of the reason for this was the relative strength of the Yugoslavian military. It was certainly no slouch, and it was able to use its strengths to occupy some other border areas while other countries, like the Poles and Czechs, were busy elsewhere. In many cases the conference would then be forced to recognize these occupations, like the Banat.

With so many items undecided it would be years before all of Yugoslavia’s borders would be settled. They would reject the official treaty with Austria-Hungary, refusing to sign it due to some provisions that provided, in the minds of the Yugoslavian government and especially the Serbians, too many rights for minorities. The border issues would have to be solved one nation at a time. On June 4th, 1920 a treaty would be signed with Hungary, and in November 1920 with Italy. The Italian treaty would be important, because it provided official recognition from the Italians for Yugoslavia and settled the borders, at least for the time being. However, it also sowed the seeds that would later be harvested by the Italians under Mussolini which would result in the occuptation of Fiume just a few years later.

By the end of 1920 the borders of Yugoslavia were mostly settled, and within the new country there were more than 2 million non-Slavic people with a quarter of a million Romanians and haf a million Hungarians and Germans included in that number. Even within the country and among the Slavs themselves everything was not exactly sunshine and roses. Many of the Croatian and Slovenian parties, seeing the Serbian dominated parliament, refused to take their seats in the new government. That govenment would then brutally oppress the Macedonians, and Bosnian Muslims, and many other ethnic minorities. This meant that when the Second World War began, instead of a united parliamentary democracy, Yugoslavia would be led by a Serbian monarchy. This legacy of instability would continue until the end of the 20th century, and even really until today.