In 1919, two multiethnic states, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, were created, on the ruins of another multiethnic state (the Habsburg Empire). It was thought that if the Habsburgs had failed, perhaps the other two, composed of ethnically and linguistically similar peoples, might survive. But exactly a century after Versailles, neither exists. We have to recognize some “inconvenient truths”: all multiethnic states in Eastern and Central Europe have dissolved, either violently or not, and none was sustainable. It is the several-centuries long quest for “own national state” that has doomed multinational federations and that is at the origin of East European resistance today to participate in the allocation of migrants from other cultures among them (see my post).
But why were these new multiethnic states created to begin with? A Serbian historian Mira Radojevic, considered one of the best experts on the history of the inter-war Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later baptized Kingdom of Yugoslavia), tries to answer this question in her very readable, just published Srpski narod i kraljevina Jugoslavija 1918-41 [Serbian people and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia]. The current first volume takes the reader from the Austrian annexation of Bosnia 1908 to the first Yugoslav constitution in 1921.
Radojevic asks this question, Why was Yugoslavia created?, from the Serbian perspective. This is a reasonable approach. Serbia was, with Montenegro, the only independent country (among those that would later compose the new kingdom) and was by 1918, when the Western coalition won the War, part of that coalition, unlike Croatia and Slovenia that were on the losing side. So if Serbia did not want Yugoslavia, it would not have been created. The question is, why did it want it?
Radojevic thinks that, like in a Greek drama, there was no option but to have it although the forebodings were that things might end up badly. What pushed the actors toward the unification? There was a strong intellectual South Slav movement that flourished especially in the opposition to A-H annexation of Bosnia. The Young Bosnia movement was modelled after the similar European “young” nationalistic movements. It saw Italian and German unifications as its blueprint. Since Serbia was free, it had to serve the role of the Italian Piedmont (the newspaper of that name was published by one of the unification organizations) or of Prussia. With hindsight, we know that Serbia, for many reasons, economic, demographic and social, could not fulfil that role. But by 1910, this was not clear.
In that febrile and excitable atmosphere of extravagant nationalism, with ascetic youngers living on bread and water, anarchists’ books (Bakunin was very popular), and national poetry, the objectives of Greater Serbia (unification of all Serbs, but leaving out Croats and Slovenes) and of Yugoslavia (a common unitary or federal state) were almost treated as interchangeable. Foreign historians, like Christopher Clark and Margaret MacMilan in their recent books on World War I, make the same mistake (which of course is less acceptable now than one hundred years ago). But these two objectives were not the same.
Yet the “excitable, nationalistic” part of the public opinion, however intellectually influential, was probably minoritarian in Serbia. The almost perennial Serbian Prime Minister, Nikola Pašić, the man who received the A-H ultimatum in 1914, and his Radical Party, were, to say the least, lukewarm toward the idea of South Slav unity. Pašić thought the cultural differences between Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats were unbridgeable. But by 1916, as the Serbian Army had to withdraw in front of the combined Austrian-German onslaught, his opinion changed. He was now willing to entertain the idea of Yugoslavia (even if he hated the name), and was pushed in that direction, among other things, by a unification movement that sprang up in Croatia, the Yugoslav Council (Jugoslavenski odbor). It was composed mostly of Croat and Slovene intellectuals and politicians from A-H who wanted to see the dissolution of the Habsburgs, and believing (probably rightly) that the independence of Slovenia and Croatia would be impossible to achieve, they either decided to go for what was to some a lesser evil of South-Slav unification, and to others, who were committed to “integral Yugoslavism”, the realization of the dream of South Slav unify.
But how important was this pro-unification position among the Slovene, Croat and (even Serbian) populations in Austria-Hungary? Radojevic does not give a clear answer, but it seems to have had a rather minor appeal probably all the way to the second half of 1918 when the Monarchy started falling apart. It is remarkable that the number of desertions of South Slav soldiers from the A-H divisions that fought against Serbia was minimal. (Tito was one of such soldiers who did not defect; he later got severely injured and surrendered to the Russians in Galicia). Radojevic shows the official Serbian Army numbers on A-H deserters and they are pathetic: just a couple of hundred out of thousands soldiers who served in A-H units on the Serbian front. Moreover, some of these units were for more than 90% composed of, and led by, the presumably oppressed South Slav members; but they did not rebel nor defect. Some of them even engaged in terrible massacres of Serbian civilian population once Serbian defenses collapsed.
The Serbian government preferred to ignore these facts and censored the detailed data on atrocities because this contradicted the now official Royal Government position that other South Slav peoples were eagerly anticipating their liberation from under the A-H yoke and the unification with their long-lost Serbian brethren.
When the Habsburgs unraveled in the late 1918, a new body sprang up in Zagreb, called the Council of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs (from A-H). They hurriedly travelled to Belgrade to formalize the unification with the Serbian Royal government although a myriad of issues remained unsolved. Everything was done under the time pressure; new borders were being drawn, and everybody tried to get as much as they could in Versailles. It was a bazaar.
The South Slavs from A-H were not part of the Versailles negotiations. Serbia nevertheless included them in its own delegation. Disagreements began almost immediately especially with respect to Italy that was, in a secret London memorandum, promised most of Dalmatia. But Dalmatians did not enter into the unification scheme just to lose all that they claimed was theirs! They accused the Royal Government of not fighting strongly enough to stop Italian irredentism. (One might remember D’Annunzio’s later “occupation” of Fiume/Rijeka, as a prelude to Mussolini’s March on Rome.)
What were the positions of major powers? They were at best indifferent and were, somewhat reluctantly, coaxed into the Yugoslav scheme. Tsarist Russia was throughout the war against because it feared loss of its influence as Orthodox Serbs and Montenegrins would be “diluted” by Catholic Croats and Slovenes. France was against, thinking the idea quixotic, until, after Versailles, when feeling fearful of German revanchism, it realized it needed a cordon of friendly states in the East. Britain took the position of sublime indifference until, also towards the end of the War, it accepted the imminence of A-H dissolution (which did not figure in Wilson’s Fourteen points), and preferred a mix of Catholics and Orthodox for the same reason that the defunct Tsarist government did not like it.
So why did Serbia want Yugoslavia? The answer is elusive; yes, the unification of all Serbs and further of all Southern Slavs. But it is not a convincing answer. It seems to have wanted it for the same reason that everyone likes more money to less money, bigger territory to smaller territory. Regent (later King) Alexander of Serbia, who gradually began to show his authoritarian bent, was surely excited that after being defeated by the Habsburgs and pushed with his army all the way to Greece, he would come back victorious and take over Habsburg castles.
A very heterogeneous country was created with very heterogeneous objectives in the minds of its creators and with very different aims pursued by major powers. But the lessons about difficulties of multinationalism are more general.