How Yugoslavia Was Created: The 1917 Corfu Declaration (I)

The Consequences of WWI and the Yugoslavs

The end of WWI in November 1918 as a consequence of the military collapse of the Central Powers and the following series of peace treaties of Versailles on June 28th, 1919 between the Allies and Germany, of St Germain on September 10th, 1919 with Austria, of Neuilly on November 27th, 1919 with Bulgaria, and finally of Trianon on June 4th, 1920 with Hungary, produced major border changes in Central, South-East, and East Europe as the continent saw the emergence of several new states and the enlargement of others fortunate enough to be on the side of the victorious powers. After 1919, new states included the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), Finland, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia (under such formal name from 1929).[i] Romania enlarged itself greatly, taking Transylvania from Hungary, Bukovina from Austria, and Bessarabia from Russia.[ii]

As a matter of fact, the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and the Ottoman Empire, the disarmament of Germany, and the effects of the 1917 Russian Revolution followed by the 1917−1921 Russian Civil War completely altered the balance of power in Europe. Potentially Germany, in terms of its population and industrial power, became after 1919 without any counterbalance in Europe. The only hope of all of those states who stood to lose by a revision of the post-WWI peace treaties was the maintenance of overwhelming military strength in an alliance against any revival of German power.

The most important consequence of the First World War (the Great War)[iii] concerning the Balkan Peninsula was the dissolution of the Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy (the Dual Monarchy) and the creation of a new Balkan state – the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (the KSCS)[iv] proclaimed in Zagreb on November 23rd, 1918 and confirmed as a new political reality in Belgrade on December 1st, of the same year.[v] The KSCS was comprising the territories of the before-WWI independent Kingdoms of Montenegro and Serbia and former Habsburg and Ottoman Balkan provinces.  However, in the Balkan, Yugoslav and even international historiography there is still a false interpretation of the historical sources and political events based on them upon the question when and where the KSCS was proclaimed as it is interpreted to be in Belgrade on December 1st, 1918.[vi] Nevertheless, whether within the boundaries its leaders proposed or those that were finally accepted by several international post-WWI international peace treaties, the lands that made up the new state of the KSCS became for sure the most complex in the Central, South-East, and East Europe. Those lands included five of the South Slavic peoples (approximately 10 million inhabitants) but as well as several minority peoples from every ethnolinguistic group in the Balkans (approximately 2million inhabitants).[vii] For the reason that the territory of the KSCS was ruled by four different states before WWI, there were four different currencies, railway networks, and banking systems. At the time of its formal declaration of independence, the country had two Governments: the National Council in Zagreb and the Royal Serbian Government in Belgrade. In fact, the territory of the KSCS was divided between the independent South Slavic countries of Serbia and Montenegro (both of them enlarged their territories during the 1912−1913 Balkan Wars), and the Austria-Hungary (former the Habsburg Empire), which in turn was subdivided on the South Slavic territory into several Austrian provinces (Carniola, Styria, Dalmatia), the Hungarian Kingdom (Croatia, Slavonia, Bačka, Banat), and jointly administered Austro-Hungarian province of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

1 balkan_aspirations_1912As a matter of fact, the sources and facts are clearly telling that a common Yugoslav state was in fact proclaimed in Zagreb (Croatia) on November 23rd, 1918 but not in Belgrade (Serbia). In the capital of the Kingdom of Serbia on December 1st, 1918 it was only confirmed already proclaimed a common state of all Serbs, Croats and Slovenes by a Montenegrin regent Alexander Karađorđević on the throne of the Kingdom of Serbia.[viii] As it was mentioned, the new state was composed by the pre-war territorial parts of the territories of the Kingdom of Serbia, Kingdom of Montenegro and the Dual Monarchy populated by the South Slavs. The last territory (of the Dual Monarchy) gave around 50% of the new state. Nevertheless, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes became after December 1918 the biggest country at the Balkans and one of the bigger states in Europe from the territorial point of view.[ix] The country was in fact created, proclaimed and recognized as such just by the politicians in Zagreb and Belgrade but not by any kind of the people’s referenda or plebiscite either on the territory of the Kingdom of Serbia or the South Slavic lands of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy.

During WWI, the idea of Yugoslav unification was advocated by three different political actors: The Yugoslav Committee (formed in April 1915 by a group of Croat, Serb, and Slovenian political emigrants from the Dual Monarchy), The National Council (formed in Zagreb on October 29th, 1918, at which time it declared the independence of all South Slavic lands in the Dual Monarchy), and the Royal Serbian Government (which as an ally of the Entente regained full control of Serbia in November 1918). In regard with Montenegro, exile leaders had their own wartime committee in Paris and favored joining Serbia, although this political combination did not happen until Montenegro’s King Nicholas I (who opposed the unification with Serbia) became formally deposed on November 24th, 1918, by a pro-unification Assembly of Montenegro in Podgorica. By December 1st, 1918, all South Slavs except the Bulgarians have been brought together within the borders of the KSCS and under the leadership of the Karadjordjević dynasty of Serbia.

During the process of political-state’s unification of the Yugoslavs into their own single national and independent state during the First World War, several important documents were issued by the representative institutions of them with regard to the creation and internal political and administrative organization of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. Without any doubt, the 1917 Corfu Declaration is the most significant and crucial document among all of them. It was signed on July 20th, 1917 between the Royal Government of the Kingdom of Serbia and the representatives of the Yugoslav Committee – a political organization established in 1915 in London with the intention to represent the South Slavs from the Dual Monarchy. The Corfu Declaration became a basis for further process of unification and, what is even more important, a basis for the conception of the internal political organization of the new state after 1918. However, the conclusions of this document were changed in the Geneva Declaration signed on November 9th, 1918 by the representatives of the Royal Government of the Kingdom of Serbia, the National Council in Zagreb, the Yugoslav Committee and the parliamentary groups. Nevertheless, the proclamation of the new state in Zagreb on November 23rd, 1918 was officially accepted and verified in Belgrade by Serbia’s side on December 1st, 1918 mainly on the basis of the Corfu Declaration but not on the Geneva one.

corfupoliticians
Croatian politician Ante Trumbic and Serbian leaders Nikola Pasic, Milenko Radomar Vesnic and Ivan Zolger, Paris, 1919

After the formal proclamation of a new state at the very end of WWI, the KSCS faced immediately the focal problem that was the new country’s borders. In regard to this issue, the KSCS’ delegation at the Paris Peace Conference assumed that besides formerly independent Kingdom of Serbia (largely expanded along its eastern, western and northern boundaries in November 1918) and Kingdom of Montenegro (united with Serbia in November 1918), the new state would include all ex-Austro-Hungarian provinces south of the Drava and Danube rivers followed by several lands north of that line (Klagenfurt region, Prekomurje, and Medjumurje). A territory of historical Banat was divided between the Kingdom of Romania (with Timişoara) and the KSCS (with Vršac).

During and after WWI the strongest challenge to the territorial claims of the Yugoslavs came from Italy – a country which was during the war a fellow of the Entente. Italy was itself very interested to annex large parts of East Adriatic (Istria, Dalmatia, and the islands) that was before 1918 part of the Dual Monarchy. Therefore, one of the reasons for the convocation of the 1917 Corfu Conference was to beat Italian territorial aspirations in the area of East Adriatic. The final settlement of the border issue between Italy and the KSCS was fixed by the Treaty of Rapallo signed on November 12th, 1920, by which Italy acquired the coastal territories of ex-Dual Monarchy (Gorizia-Gradisca, Trieste, Istria), a few East Adriatic islands (Cres, Lošinj, Lastovo), and the town of Zadar. However, no one side was fully satisfied with the treaty.[x]

Undoubtedly, Italian territorial aspirations, as well as its diplomatic and military threat at the Balkan Peninsula, was for both Serbia’s Royal Government and the Yugoslav Committee one of the most important reasons to convoke the Corfu Conference in July 1917. Both of them wanted to make publicly known that one single and vigorous South Slavic state would be created on the central and western parts of the Balkans which could defend itself from the Italian pressure. Consequently, the Yugoslav Committee would preserve the South Slavic Adriatic littoral, while Serbia’s Royal Government would be in the position to preserve the South Slavic territories of West Macedonia and Kosovo-Metohia. It is interesting to notice that the Corfu island, as a conference meeting place, was located just between Albania and Epirus – two territories under the strongest Italian political-military pressure at that time.

London 1915 and SerbiaThat Italy was making a serious threat for Serbia in relation to Albania and Epirus in the first half of 1917 was finally approved on June 3rd, 1917 when the Italian general Ferraro, under instructions given by his Government, proclaimed the Italian protectorate over Albania. According to Serbia’s Prime Minister Nikola Pašić’s circular note which was sent to France, the United Kingdom, Russia, and the USA, this proclamation was against the axioms adopted by the Entente states that this war was fought against the German imperialism and militarism for the principle of the self-determination of the nations. N. Pašić noticed that this Italian proclamation was against the “vital interests of the Serbian people” for their future, but also and against the “vital interests of the Serbian state”.[xi] In fact, he was afraid that Italy could close Serbia’s exit to the sea via the Morava-Vardar valley. At the end of June 1917, during the Corfu Conference, N. Pašić confirmed that Italy was working against Albanian leader Esad-Pasha, Serbia and Greece by making two Albanian Governments – the northern and the southern ones.[xii] For the Royal Government of Serbia, it was totally clear that the Italian diplomacy was working against the interests of the South Slavs in July 1917, what was again confirmed in December 1917. Taking into account the information given by Serbia’s ambassador in London, Jovan M. Jovanović, to the Regent Alexander I Karadjordjević of Serbia, only Italy was against the South Slavic unification among all Entente members.

It has to be noticed that the Italians had three crucial principles of their Balkan policy: 1) Sacro egoismo Italiano; 2) Not to allow a total dismemberment of Austria-Hungary under the principle of the self-determination of the nations; and 3) Not to allow the creation of a single South Slavic state.[xiii] According to the information given by J. M. Jovanović from December 1917, the Italian politicians around the Italian Premier Vittorio Emmanuelle Orlando (1860–1952) in the Italian Government wanted to occupy Dalmatia for Italy,[xiv] to create a small Serbia, and to thwart the South Slavic unification. This Orlando’s political orientation was pro-Germanic and naturally anti-Serbian.[xv]

ENDNOTES:

[i] See the map in [G. Barraclough (ed.), The Times Atlas of World History, Revised Edition, Maplewood, New Jersey: Times Books Limited, 1986, pp. 264−265].

[ii] K. W. Treptow (ed.), A History of Romania, Iaşi: The Center for Romanian Studies−The Romanian Cultural Foundation, 1996, pp. 384−389.

[iii] On the Great War, see: H. Strachan, The First World War, New York: Viking Penguin, 2004; P. Hart, The Great War, 1914−1918, London: Profile Books Ltd, 2013; G. Wawro, A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire, Basic Books, 2014; W. Philpott, War of Attrition: Fighting the First World War, Overlook, 2014.

[iv] Kraljevina Srba, Hrvata i Slovenaca (Kraljevina SHS).

[v] S. Trifunovska (ed.), Yugoslavia Through Documents: From its creation to its dissolution, Dordrecht−Boston−London: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1994, pp. 151−160.

[vi] For instance: B. Petranović, Istorija Jugoslavije 1918−1988, Vol. 1, Beograd: NOLIT, 1988, p. 26; В. Ћоровић, Наше победе, Београд: Култура, 1990, p. 141; B. Petranović, M. Zečević, Agonija dve Jugoslavije, Beograd−Šabac: Zaslon, 1991, p. 14; К. Елан, Живот и смрт Александра I краља Југославије, Београд: Ново дело, 1988, p. 27.

[vii] P. R. Magocsi, Historical Atlas of Central Europe, Revised and Expanded Edition, Seattle−University of Washington Press, 2002, p. 153.

[viii] According to the French writer and good friend of Alexander I, Claude Eylan, the King of Yugoslavia identified himself as a Montenegrin (K. Елан, Живот и смрт Александра I краља Југославије, Београд: Ново дело, 1988, p. 27). For the matter of fact, he was born in the capital of Montenegro – Cetinje on December 17th, 1888 at the court of the Prince of Montenegro. From the mother side (Zorka), his origin was coming from the ruling dynasty of Montenegro as his mother was a daughter of the Prince of Montenegro – Nicholas I [С. Станојевић, Сви српски владари. Биографије српских (са црногорским и босанским) и преглед хрватских владара, Београд: Отворена књига, 2015, p. 158]. About the life and death of Alexander I of Yugoslavia, see: C. Eylan, La Vie et la Mort D’Alexandre Ier Roi de Yugoslavie, Paris: Bernard Grasset, 1935.

[ix] Before December 1st, 1918, Serbia was already united with Montenegro, Vojvodina (a southern region of ex-Hungary) and the biggest part of Bosnia-Herzegovina (Б. Глигоријевић, Краљ Александар Карађорђевић, 1, Београд: БИГЗ, 1996, p. 441).

[x] E. Milak, Italija i Jugoslavija 1931−1937., Beograd: Institut za savremenu istoriju, 1987, pp. 22−24.

[xi] Aрхив Србије, Београд, МИД КС, Политичко одељење, “Наша нота поводом прокламације италијанског протектората над Албанијом“ – Никола Пашић, 30. мај 1917. г. (old style), p. 182.

[xii] Aрхив Југославије, Београд, Збирка Јована Јовановића Пижона, 80-9-44.

[xiii] Aрхив Југославије, Београд, Канцеларија Њ. В. Краља, Ф-2.

[xiv] Italian claims on both Istria and Dalmatia were strongly based on Italian historic and ethnic rights. On this issue, see [L. Monzali, The Italians of Dalmatia: From Italian Unification to World War I, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009].

[xv] Aрхив Југославије, Београд, Канцеларија Њ. В. Краља, Ф-2.

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