Jugoslavia:
A Commonwealth In The Making

By Bogumil Vosnjak

[The Nation; July 13, 1918]

The future historian of the world war will be especially be interested in the beginnings of the new state life among the nations which lost their independence under the iron heel of Hapsburg autocracy. The downfall of the Hapsburgs is considered by Jugoslavs, Czecho-Slovaks, and Poles as the condition of their emancipation from German ascendency, and the independence of Jugoslavia, Bohemia, and Poland is for these nations the only issue.

Who are the Jugoslavs, or Southern Slavs? There is from the Adriatic to the Ægean Sea, from the Triglav next the Slav-Italian-German linguistic frontier to Salonica, a territory, in the form of a great triangle, which includes Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, southern Hungary, Dalmatia, Istria, Trst (Trieste), Gorica, Carniola, Carinthia, southern Styria. This territory is populated by the same nation with three names, the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. What is the Jugoslav problem? The unification of these twelve millions in one independent state, Jugoslavia, which will be a bulwark against German aggression and aspiration to be master of the road to Bagdad. In the last years before the outbreak of the great war, there was a saying that the future of Austria-Hungary depended upon the solution of the Jugoslav question. But Austria-Hungary was unable to solve the problem, that is, to unite the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, within the boundaries of the monarchy. Hungary opposed to the utmost every attempt at incorporation of Dalmatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina with Croatia. Moreover, the unification of the Jugoslavs of Austria-Hungary alone would have impaired dangerously the idea of complete national unity, which naturally includes the Jugoslavs of Serbia and Montenegro. The outbreak of the great war simplified the whole situation. From the very beginning every one thoroughly acquainted with the facts was convinced that any partial solution of the Jugoslav problem, within Austria-Hungary alone, is impossible, and that the world war must definitely settle this crucial problem. The settlement can be only the unity and independence of the whole Jugoslav nation.

There are three vital problems which must determine the fate of Austria-Hungary: the Jugoslav, the Czech, and the Polish questions. But among these the Jugoslav problem was a question of death and life for Austria-Hungary. Neither Czechs nor Poles had national states on the boundaries of that empire. Serbia, on the other hand, by the very fact of her existence and geographical situation, was a dangerous foe. The evolution of the recent revolutionary movement in the southern, provinces teaches us that Serbia was not guilty of spreading high treason in Jugoslav lands, but that there is a national movement which has its reason in itself and in Austrian methods of government. By crushing Serbia, Austria-Hungary thought to crush the Jugoslav movement.

The Hapsburgs did not succeed in this attempt, but their attitude immensely strengthened the Jugoslav movement both inside and outside the monarchy. The Jugoslavs appeared as the strongest, most decisive, and stoutest antagonists of Hapsburg injustice. Nowhere did Austrian militarism carry out greater crimes than in Jugoslav countries; nowhere was repression, with destruction of life and property, more brutal than in the Jugoslav countries. It was only natural that the Jugoslav exiles in Western Europe were first among the Slavs of Austria-Hungary to create a revolutionary body, the Jugoslav Committee of London.

When in May, 1915, the Jugoslav Committee drew up its programme, the starting point for future work was clear and settled. An evolution of centuries prepared the way. That racial and linguistic unity must develop into state unity is a truism for political reformers. But owing to the dualism of the Jugoslav nation, which as Serbian was in the orbit of Constantinople and of the Eastern civilization, and as Croatian was exposed to the influence of the Church of Rome, two rival state ideas arise, the Serbian and the Croatian. As the Croatians endeavored to unite the whole race in a Croatian, and the Serbians in a Serbian, state, there was here created a dangerous source of quarrels. But nevertheless both parties pretended that there is but one nation indivisible. It was necessary to replace the Croatian and Serbian state idea by the common national idea. An essay of this kind was Illyrism, a literary and political movement which started in the thirties of the past century. A generation later Bishop Strossmayer, the friend of Gladstone, inaugurated the Jugoslav movement, which aimed to introduce into politics the natural fact of national unity and harmony among Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes.

The victory of Serbia in the Balkan War of 1912-1913 is often considered the starting point of the modern Jugoslav movement. But we must not forget that there was among all classes a strong feeling of national unity before the Balkan victories. The resolution of Reka (Fiume), October 4, 1905, is an amazing political document. Forty Deputies from Croatia, Dalmatia, and Istria declare in President Wilson's style that "every nation has the right to decide freely and independently concerning its existence and fate." The resolution of Reka (Fiume) has as its main purpose to state the duty and interest of the Croats "to fight side by side with the Hungarian nation for the fulfilment of its constitutional rights and liberties." The Croats are ready to support the Hungarian coalition in the endeavor to separate from Austria. This the Vienna court considers as high treason. Vienna is puzzled by the fact that the once loyal Croats are entering upon an anti-Hapsburg policy. The Hungarian coalition promises electoral reform in Croatia and free elections without Government interference. The national party defeats the reform, and a national Croatian Government is installed. The spell is broken. Henceforth the Croatian Parliament has no longer an anti-national majority. The Hungarian coalition is dissolved, but the political effect of the Reka (Fiume) resolution cannot be cancelled. Beside that, another event takes place. As a consequence of the Fiume resolution, the Serb Deputies of the Dalmatian Diet declare for joint action with the Croats, and the Croat members declare that, Croats, and Serbs are one nation. These political events find a strong echo in all Jugoslav countries, and so the resolution of Fiume becomes one of the pillars of the policy of national unity. Vienna's attempts to disunite Serbs and Croats by means of intrigues and persecutions and actions for high treason are in vain. The annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina stirs up the Jugoslav feeling still more. The wave of national enthusiasm grows from year to year, and when the world catastrophe begins, the nation is already formed. The cruel persecutions during the first months of the war cement the nation.

Dr. Ante Trumbić, the father of the Reka (Fiume) resolution, was in May, 1915, elected president of the Jugoslav Committee, in which Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes are represented by public men, who, being in exile, saw for their nation only one future, absolute state independence and unification with Serbia. It was a policy without compromise. There was only one solution: dismemberment of Austria-Hungary. The leaders did not trust the Hapsburgs; Austrian autonomy made them laugh, and Austrian federalism they had enjoyed through centuries. Later events proved that this radical policy was absolutely right; the plain programme gave the movement the strongest backing. But the Committee had to fight two fronts. The friends of Austria and the Hapsburgs in England and France defended the existence and integrity of Austria-Hungary. Although Austria-Hungary was at war with France and England, nevertheless Austria-Hungary had in France among Catholics, in England among Liberals, a good press. One of the most interesting chapters of the diplomacy of the world war will show how many friends of the Hapsburgs came to the rescue, what efforts were, made, especially in England, to detach Austria-Hungary from Germany and save her. The naughty members of the Jugoslav Committee refuted successfully all the pro-Austrian arguments and predicted the complete failure of this policy.

Far more delicate was the relation of the Jugoslav Committee to Italy. Italy entered the war with a political programme which was opposed to Jugoslav national unity. The claims of Italy upon the eastern shores of the Adriatic had been laid down in a secret treaty, for which imperial Russia has probably the greatest responsibility. It was the sacred duty of the Jugoslav Committee to defend the Jugoslav shores of the Adriatic and to denounce secret diplomacy as a political failure in our age. The campaign was skilfully conducted, and European public opinion was persuaded that a just settlement is possible only on democratic lines, and that the wish of the people has to be considered. But the struggle of the Committee with Italian public opinion handicapped the movement, inasmuch as Italy, one of the Allies, opposed international acknowledgment of Jugoslav national aims. In the meantime arose difficulties in securing unity of action among all nations who are interested in the breakdown of Austria-Hungary. The relations of Jugoslavs with Czechs and Poles during the first two years were not very close; there was collaboration, but not unity of action.

After the death of Francis Joseph, the Jugoslav Committee expressed in a strong manifesto the feeling it had towards the Hapsburgs. On the day of the coronation of Emperor Charles there was published this bill of indictment against a faithless, treacherous dynasty. The strength of the document lies in the words with which the Committee declares that there are no more ties of allegiance between the Hapsburgs and the seven million Jugoslavs. The Hapsburgs have systematically destroyed the vital strength of the nation. The Committee calls to the silent millions of Austria-Hungary: "You are free, your masters have no right to rule you." Bold action of this kind influenced strongly the mind of the Jugoslav population in Austria-Hungary. This was preparatory work, and only by knowing it can the later upheaval be understood.

The spring of 1917 brought to the Jugoslav Committee two great opportunities. The Russian revolution changed radically the relations of the Slavic world to the West European nations. The ghost of Pan-Slavism disappeared. The Western Powers became more inclined to grant Jugoslav state unity, as there was no more danger that Jugoslavia could be a satellite of Russia. The downfall of old Russia, whose imperialism was so closely connected with the Orthodox Church, had important consequences for Jugoslav unity. The Russian Synod established at Constantinople could prevent the consolidation of the Jugoslavs and foment religious discord. Imperial Russia did not hear the voice of the Jugoslav younger brother who solicited help in the Adriatic business. Protopopov, as head of the Russian parliamentary delegation, said in the summer of 1917 to the writer of this article, that the Jugoslavs would have to give up the Adriatic to Italy, but that the Ægean was theirs. After the fall of old Russia, a man came to power there who deserves the gratitude of the Jugoslavs. Milyukov was the first European statesman who declared that on the ruins of Austria-Hungary there is to be established free Jugoslavia, and he likewise took a fair and just standpoint in the Jugoslav-Italian controversy. The entrance of America into the war caused immense enthusiasm among Jugoslavs. The reason for this enthusiasm was first of all the conviction that the United States will never permit the conclusion of peace on any foundations that are not thoroughly- democratic. The American idealism of Wilson touched the Jugoslav heart, and the grip that Gladstone once had on our people cannot be compared with the hold of President Wilson on the Jugoslavs in the chains of Austrian autocracy.

The Russian revolution and the entrance of America into the war hastened the resolution of Dr. Trumbić that an energetic step must be taken to reach the endorsement of the Jugoslav cause by the Allied Governments. Corfu became a new chapter of our efforts. Until the agreement known as the "Declaration of Corfu," the Jugoslav Committee and the Serbian Government worked separately, although in complete harmony. The Serbian Government gave to the Committee all diplomatic aid and support, and granted to the Jugoslavs of Austria-Hungary the right to enter the Serbian civil service as Serbian citizens do. But until the "Declaration of Corfu" there was no joint statement of political aims. The purpose of the Committee was to urge the Allied Powers to consider the Jugoslav question no longer as an internal question of Austria-Hungary, but as an international question. In doing that the Committee was only the executor of the will of all Jugoslav parties in Austria- Hungary. The Declaration of Corfu is a joint act, concluded between a delegation of the Jugoslav Committee as revolutionary representative, and considered by the Serbian Government as legal representative, of seven million Jugoslavs of Austria-Hungary, and the Serbian Government as representing the five million Jugoslavs of Serbia. It adopts the political ideas of the Jugoslav programme of 1915: unification of all Jugoslavs in one state on the basis of the full equality of the three branches, Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. The declaration states the equality of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox religions, and this equality, once realized by legislation, means the disestablishment of the Serbian national church. In a dignified way the declaration touches also the controversy with Italy. The territory of the new state must include the whole territory "inhabited compactly and in territorial continuity by our nation of the three names. It cannot be mutilated without detriment to the vital interests of the community." "In the interest of freedom and equal rights of all nations, the Adriatic shall be free and open to each and all." The declaration states also that all great questions of future state life ought to find in the Constituent Assembly, elected on the largest democratic basis, their ultimate sanction.

During the Corfu Conference an important event took place. The Jugoslav members of the Vienna Parliament declared, May 30,1917, that all Jugoslavs must be united in one independent national state, This manifesto coincided in the most important points with the programme of the Jugoslav Committee and occasioned a popular movement in Jugoslav lands, never dreamed of before. The Jugoslav Committee accordingly had a strong backing in the nearly unanimous will of the Jugoslavs of Austria-Hungary.

The declaration of Corfu met with a loud echo in Italy, where the policy of handicapping the movement for Jugoslav unity was already considered a failure. A great change occurred in Italian public opinion. Pourparlers between Italian representative men of official standing and the Jugoslav Committee began in December, 1917. The results of these early discussions can be easily detected in the Rome resolution of April, 1918. As soon as there was an agreement between Jugoslavs and Italians, a common understanding among all the oppressed nations of Austria-Hungary was easily reached. Dr. Trumbić, by removing the disagreement between Jugoslavs and Italians, gave the impetus for the formation of the anti-Austrian bloc. Jugoslavs, Czechs, Poles, Italians, Rumanians, declared in the Palazzo dei Conservatori at Rome, on April 10, 1918: "Each of these peoples proclaims its right to establish its own nationality and state unity, and to attain full political and economic independence. 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."

The importance of the Rome Congress can be appreciated as it deserves only in connection with the statement of the State Department at Washington. The Secretary of State, in a communication of May 29, 1918, endorsed the work of the Rome Congress and quoted its resolutions. He declared that the aspirations of the Czecho-Slovaks and Jugoslavs had the earnest sympathy of the American Government. America thus gave an energetic lead. The American statement was followed by an expression of agreement on behalf of the Prime Ministers of Great Britain, France, and Italy, assembled at Versailles. Thus the Jugoslav Committee ultimately reached its goal, the international recognition of the Jugoslav problem. There is already to-day a Jugoslav nation. Twelve million Jugoslavs feel that they form one community of language, race, and civilization. Germany and the Hapsburgs will never be able to destroy the will of the Jugoslavs to be a nation, for they are already unified in heart and mind.

Austria-Hungary is to-day on the edge of internal collapse. On the day on which Germany's military strength is broken, Austria-Hungary no longer exists. From the Austrian chaos will emerge free Jugoslavia and Bohemia. Here the Russian story will not repeat itself. Anarchy will not be the consequence of the Austrian breakdown. The Jugoslav, Czech, and Polish nations are prepared for the great day; for they have nationalism, patriotism, discipline, and a definite political programme.

Bohemia and Jugoslavia are already commonwealths in making. The basis of future state life is already laid. Bohemia has her National Council, already recognized by the Allies as a kind of Provisional Government, and her revolutionary Czecho-Slovak army. Far more elaborate is the case of Jugoslavia. The army and diplomacy of Servia are already the nucleus of the future Jugoslav institutions. The highest organs of national government are two-fold, the Serbian Government and the Jugoslav Committee, and there is no doubt that in the near future there will be reached a satisfactory solution of the problem how to create a single organ representative of the whole nation.

Jugoslavia a few years ago was a dream; to-day she is a reality. Her great state ideal will be the reconciliation of West and East, the removal of the difference which in the past divided Rome and Byzantium. Her state ideal is absolutely unimperialistic; she sees in democracy and social harmony of all classes the main issue of a happy commonwealth. Therefore she is radically opposed to German political ideas and expansion. Being the key of Europe, Jugoslavia will realize her state idea with faithful devotion.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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