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

Part I

Why Serbia de facto recognized the Yugoslav Committee in summer 1917?

The preparations for the 1917 Corfu Conference can be traced from the moment when the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Serbia Nikola Pašić (1845−1926) sent an invitation to the President of the Yugoslav Committee in London, a Croat from Dalmatian city of Split – Dr. Ante Trumbić, at the beginning of May 1917. Dr. Trumbić was invited, in fact, to come to the Corfu island in Greece with other four members of the Yugoslav Committee in order to make an agreement with the Royal Government of Serbia with regard to the most urgent and important questions about the creation of the new Serbo-Croat-Slovenian state.[i] Therefore, the most significant question which needs appropriate answer in this matter is: Why did Nikola Pašić decide to negotiate with the Yugoslav Committee at that time and at such a way to recognize it de facto (but not and de iure) as an equal political actor to the Royal Serbian Government upon the process of the Yugoslav unification – an actor which was to represent all South Slavs from the Dual Monarchy?

In order to give an answer to this question, we have to take into consideration N. Pašić’s opinion about the functions of the Yugoslav Committee from the time of its very foundation. The Yugoslav Committee was established on April 30th, 1915 in Paris by the South Slavs who were exiled from the territory of the Dual Monarchy during the first months of the war. The reason for its establishment was of the very practical political nature: it was the answer to the secret Treaty of London, signed between Italy and the Entente states of the United Kingdom, France, and Russia. The treaty was signed on April 26th, 1915 at the expense of Austria-Hungary but primarily at the expense of the South Slavic territories in the Dual Monarchy claimed by the Croats and Slovenes (Istria, Dalmatia, and the Adriatic islands). Therefore, the creation of the Yugoslav Committee was, in fact, an act of protection of national interests and rights of the South Slavs from the Dual Monarchy,[ii] i.e., of the Austro-Hungarian Croats and Slovenes but not of the Austro-Hungarian Serbs or neighboring Serbia. The member-politicians of the Yugoslav Committee (established in Paris but soon moved to London because of diplomatic reasons) claimed to represent all South Slavs from the Dual Monarchy to the Entente powers in order to protect their national interest and ethnohistorical rights for the time after the end of the First World War at the peace conference.[iii] It means that the Yugoslav Committee was pretending to represent the peoples from the following South-Slavic ethnohistorical regions: Istria, Dalmatia, Međumurje, Prekomurje, Kranjska, South Štajerska (Styria), South-West Koruška (Carniola), Croatia, Slavonia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Kotor Bay, Baranja, Srem, Banat and Bačka. At that time, as the South Slavs, in these regions have been recognized as the separate ethnolinguistic nationalities: the Slovenes (Kranjci), Croats and Serbs.[iv]

Corfu Declaration July 1917
Corfu Declaration, July, 1917

In regard to the question of N. Pašić’s attitude towards the existence of the Yugoslav Committee and its function during the war, the most important problem was the fact that the Yugoslav Committee understood itself as the only competent political representative organization of all South Slavs from the Dual Monarchy, what means including and the Austrian-Hungarian Serbs. On other hand, Serbia’s Prime Minister did not want to accept the Yugoslav Committee as the legal political-national representative organisation of the South Slavs from the Dual Monarchy but only as the patriotic organisation with the only aim to fight for the Yugoslav (the South Slavic from the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary) national interests, and to inform the public opinion in the United Kingdom (where it was located) and Europe about the Yugoslav question in Austria-Hungary.[v] According to Vojislav Vučković, N. Pašić was in the opinion that the political role of the Yugoslav Committee was just “to inform the Allies about the sufferings of the South Slav lands under the Austrian-Hungarian rule and to present their national intentions”.[vi] These were the crucial reasons for N. Pašić that he never before the Corfu Conference recognized in practice the Yugoslav Committee as de facto the equal political-representative institution to Royal Serbia’s Government upon the process of the Serbo-Croat-Slovenian state’s unification. However, in May 1917 he decided to negotiate with the Yugoslav Committee as a representative institution of the South Slavs from the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary and at such a way to recognize it as one of the legal subjects in the process of the unification. Moreover, thus, he de facto recognized the Yugoslav Committee even as the equal negotiating-representative subject with Serbia’s Royal Government. Nevertheless, up to that time he claimed only for Serbia exclusive rights to represent all South Slavs before the Entente contracting powers and only for the Kingdom of Serbia to work on their unification into a single national state. Therefore, the most significant question in regard to the mentioned above is: What was the main reason for N. Pašić to drastically change in May 1917 his opinion towards the role and function of the Yugoslav Committee?

The answers to the above questions are coming from the very fact that Imperial Russia was the only supporter of Serbia’s plan to create the united national state of all ethnolinguistic Serbs in South-East Europe after the war on the ruins of Austria-Hungary. On the other hand, Serbia’s Royal Government was aware that both the country and the national interest of the Serbs can be protected only by Imperial Russia. N. Pašić was convinced even in 1912, just before the Balkan Wars started, that only Russia can save Serbia from the aggression by the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary.[vii] It is known that the Balkan policy of Russia in the 19th century was led by the main idea that the Russian influence in this region should be realized by supporting Bulgaria and Serbia.[viii] It was the main reason for Imperial Russia to create either a Greater Bulgaria (like according to the San Stefano Peace Treaty with the Ottoman Empire signed on March 3rd, 1878)[ix] or a Greater Serbia (during the First World War in 1915−1917). Because of the very fact that in the First World War Bulgaria from October 1915 was fighting on the opposite side (together with Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire), the crucial pivot in the Russian Balkan policy became from October 1915 the Kingdom of Serbia.[x] Probably as the best example of the Russian attitude about the Balkan affairs can be seen in proposal given by the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergei D. Sazonov (1860−1927), in September 1914 to Serbia’s ambassador to Russia: regardless to the fact that Sazonov understood well that the purpose of Serbo-Croat-Slovenian common state in the future is to be a counterbalance against Italy, Hungary, and Romania but, however, he did not advise Serbia to create a common state with the Roman Catholic Croats and Slovenes as they will be in such state all the time just an instrument used by the Vatican in its policy of destroying the Orthodoxy in East Europe.[xi] The Russian authority, therefore, preferred the creation of a strong Orthodox united national state of the Serbs in the form of a Greater Serbia at the Balkans.[xii]

Nikola Pasic
Nikola Pasic

As a very historical fact, both the military and political situation which faced the Kingdom of Serbia in late spring 1917 basically forced N. Pašić to back down in his position up to that time that Serbia had to have the exclusive right to play a role of the Yugoslav Piemond concerning the political unification of the South Slavs except for the Bulgarians but also to decide upon its internal organization. For Serbia, after the 1917 February Revolution in Russia, it was quite necessary to overcome many unfavorable conditions in global politics, to perceive negative changes which brought the end of an old imperial political system in Russia, and the appearance of the Bolsheviks on the historical stage. In addition, Serbia had to win the sympathies of the new WWI ally – the USA, to dispel Entente’s doubts about Serbia’s intentions and the practical possibility of the unification of the Yugoslavs, to face the very fact that the Central Powers had not been militarily defeated, and finally that little thought was given to the disintegration of the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary.[xiii] Shortly, for N. Pašić it became quite clear that after February 1917, the Serbian war aims and political program formulated in December 1914 needed to be realized without the backing by mighty imperial Russia being at the same time aware of the powerlessness of the new Russian authorities expressing his reservation about their assertion that they wanted liberation of oppressed nations of the Dual Monarchy, creation of united Yugoslav state, and protection of small Serbia from the German threat in the future. According to Serbian historian Đ. Stanković, the fact that Serbia’s PM N. Pašić organized the Corfu Conference in June−July 1917 without the knowledge of the Russian authorities was the best proof of it.[xiv]

Pašić did not want to abandon Serbia’s vision of statehood, as it was officially declared in Serbia’s war program on December 7th, 1914 and, therefore, N. Pašić in the spring of 1917 persisted in the position that Serbia was a focal proponent of common ideas by the Yugoslavs and their official and responsible diplomatic representative before the Entente and the rest of the world. For that reason, N. Pašic was prepared only to commend the Yugoslav Committee for its patriotic efforts concerning the unification. At the same time, Dr. Ante Trumbić as a president of the Yugoslav Committee recognized that no one of Yugoslav countries were capable of being a Piemond as Serbia was. However, at the same time, there were several main differences in regard with the process of unification between the Yugoslav Committee and Serbia’s Royal Government as on the volunteer question, methods of unification, and the character of the internal organization of the future common state. Nevertheless, the political circumstances forced both N. Pašić and A. Trumbić to narrow down their differences despite all their disagreements and to participate at the Corfu Conference recognizing each other as official political actors in the process of unification.[xv]

Serbian Army in Corfu during WWI
Serbian Army in Corfu during WWI

The basic and ultimate aim by N. Pašić and his wartime Royal Government of Serbia during the entire Great War was firstly to resolve the Serbian question if possible by the creation of a single and united common state of all Serbs in the Balkans. A prospect for the creation of such state after the war in the case of the Entente military victory was given by the Entente powers to Serbia’s Royal Government during the secret negotiations in London in April 1915 when finally a secret London Treaty was signed on April 26th of the same year. However, in order to realize this offer by the Entente, Serbia had to cede to Bulgaria her portion of historical-geographical Macedonia that was gained after the Second Balkan War in 1913 according to the Bucharest Peace Treaty in August 1913 (the so-called Vardar Macedonia). Nevertheless, the main guarantee to Serbia upon the realization of this offer was the Russian Empire. However, the Government of Serbia rejected to cede the Vardar Macedonia to Bulgaria in 1915 hoping to create a Greater Serbia after the war by inclusion into the united national state of all Serbs and Vardar Macedonia (called as well as Vardar Serbia or South Serbia).

The “Yugoslav” option for the Royal Government of Serbia was, in fact, only the second one, or better to say – an unhappy alternative, just in the case that the first option of a united national state of all Serbs can not be realized in the practice after the war for any reason. It means that any kind of Yugoslavia (centralized, federal, etc.), as a common state of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, for Serbia was as well as an option of her war aims for the very reason to solve the Serbian national question just in this case the Serbs have to live together with the Roman Catholic Croats and Slovenes in a single state what finally appeared to be tragic for the Serbs especially during the Second World War.[xvi] N. Pašić himself was a strong supporter of the creation of only a united Serbian national state (the first and prime option) instead of the common South Slavic state together with Croats and Slovenes (the second and only alternative option but not the prime one) until the spring 1917 when he decided to negotiate with the Yugoslav Committee on the equal political level for the sake of the creation of Yugoslavia instead of a united national state just of the Serbs in a form of a Greater Serbia. Therefore, in this context, the crucial question is: What was the real reason for N. Pašić to finally opt for the creation of Yugoslavia but not for a Greater Serbia in spring 1917?

Yugoslav Committee in WWI
Yugoslav Committee in WWI

On the other hand, the “Yugoslav” option was and for the Yugoslav Committee only the alternative one, but not the main political aim to be realized after the Great War. We have to keep in mind that the top leadership of the Yugoslav Committee was composed by the ethnic Croats (like the Communist Party of Yugoslavia during the Second World War) and it was led primarily by two Croat politicians from Dalmatian seaport of Split: the President Dr. Ante Trumbić (1864−1938) and Dr. Josip Smodlaka (1869−1956) who, both of them, have been Croatian ultra-nationalists. After them, the most influential committee members have been also the Croats: Ivan Meštrović, Hinko Hinković, the brothers Gazzari and others. Even the original name of the Yugoslav Committee was, in fact, the Croatian Committee, established in Rome but the name was changed very soon just for the political reasons. Nevertheless, it was obvious, and for N. Pašić and for the rest of his Government, that the Yugoslav Committee was fighting exclusively for the Croat national interest and that the „Yugoslav“ name was chosen just to hide the Croat nationalism under the quasi-Yugoslavism.[xvii] What is the most important to say about the Yugoslav Committee is that this, in fact, a Croat national(istic) organization was deeply imbued by the political ideology of the ultra-nationalistic Croatian Party of Rights, established by a Croat racist Ante Starčević in 1861. According to the party ideology, all South Slavs have been ethnolinguistic Croats while the Serbs had to be physically exterminated by the „axes“. Therefore, the Slovenians were nothing else than „Alpine“ or „White“ Croats, Montenegro was a „Red Croatia“ and all Serbs were understood just as the Orthodox Croats. The President of the Yugoslav Committee Dr. A. Trumbić was a member of this party till 1905 and Dr. Frano Supilo was in his youth a fellow of the same party. The main political aim of the Croatian Party of Rights was to establish ethnically pure Greater Croatia including all provinces of the Dual Monarchy populated by the South Slavs what was at the same time, in fact, and the crucial political aim of the Yugoslav Committee to be achieved after the war.[xviii] However, the “Yugoslav” option was for the leadership of the Yugoslav Committee, likewise and for N. Pašić in the case of Serbia, just the alternative one if the crucial political aim (a Greater Croatia) was going not to be realized for some reason.

To be continued

Reposts are welcomed with the reference to ORIENTAL REVIEW.


[i] M. Zečević, M. Milošević (eds.), Diplomatska prepiska srpske vlade 1917 (Dokumenti), Beograd: Narodno delo−Arhiv Jugoslavije, without year, p. 321. However, according to Đ. Đ. Stanković, the Prime Minister of Serbia invited Dr. A. Trumbić to come to the Corfu island not with four but with five members of the Yugoslav Committee [Ђ. Ђ. Станковић, Никола Пашић и југословенско питање, II, Београд: БИГЗ, 1985, p. 160].

[ii] According to J. Woodward and C. Woodward, by this treaty the Entente in return for Italy’s entrance to the war on their side assigned to Rome the following territories: Gorizzia/Gradisca, Trieste, Carniola, Istria and part of Dalmatia with most of its islands; with the exception of the city of Trieste (J. Woodward, C. Woodward, Italy and the Yugoslavs, Boston, 1920, pp. 317− 320).

[iii] On the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, see: M. MacMillan, Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, Random House, 2007; D. A. Andelman, A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2008; N. A. Graebner, Edward M. Bennett, The Versailles Treaty and Its Legacy: The Failure of the Wilsonian Vision, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

[iv] After the Second World War, a new Communist Government of the socialist and federal Yugoslavia proclaimed an additional three South Slavic ethnolinguistic nationalities: the Macedonians, Muslims, and Montenegrins. For that reason, the country was re-arranged into the six socialist republics. See: J. B. Allcock, Explaining Yugoslavia, New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. After 1945, socialist Serbia was deprived of the trans-Drina territories populated by Serbian majority but received two autonomous (separatist) provinces – Vojvodina and Kosovo-Metochia [Ч. Антић, Српска историја, Београд: Vukotić Media, 2019, p. 227].

[v] А. N. Dragnich, Serbia, Nikola Pašić and Yugoslavia, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1974, pp. 112−113; М. Екмечић, Ратни циљеви Србије 1914, Београд: Просвета, 1990, pp. 354−355.

[vi] В. Вучковић, „Из односа Србије и Југословенског Oдбора“, Историјски часопис, vol. XII−XIII, Београд, 1963, pp. 345−350.

[vii]A. Н. Драгнић, Србија, Никола Пашић и Југославија, Београд: Народна радикална странка, 1994, p. 112

[viii] J. M. Joвановић, Стварање заједничке државе СХС, III, Београд: 1928, p. 47. About the Eastern Question and Russia, see in [Ф. И. Успенски, Источно питање, Београд−Подгорица: Службени лист СЦГ−ЦИД, 2003].

[ix] See, for instance: A. Von Bulmerincq, Le Passe De La Russie: Depuis Les Temps Les Plus Recules Josqu’a La Paix De San Stefano 1878, Kessinger Publishing, 2010.

[x] On the Bulgarian war aims during the Great War, see: Ž. Avramovski, Ratni ciljevi Bugarske i Centralne sile 1914−1918, Beograd: Institut za savremenu istoriju, 1985.

[xi] On the Russian policy and diplomacy at the Balkans in 1914−1917, see the memoirs of the Russian ambassador to Serbia – Count Grigorie Nikolaevich Trubecki: Кнез Г. Н. Трубецки, Рат на Балкану 1914−1917. и руска дипломатија, Београд: Просвета, 1994.

[xii] About the truth, blunders, and abuses upon the Greater Serbia, see: В. Ђ. Крестић, М. Недић (eds.), Велика Србија: Истине, заблуде, злоупотребе. Зборник радова са Међународног научног скупа одржаног у Српској академији наука и уметности у Београду од 24−26. октобра 2002. године, Београд: Српска књижевна задруга, 2003.

[xiii] М. Радојевић, Љ. Димић, Србија у Великом рату 1914−1918, Београд: Српска књижевна задруга−Београдски форум за свет равноправних, 2014, p. 250.

[xiv] Đ. Đ. Stanković, Nikola Pašić, saveznici i stvaranje Jugoslavije 1914−1918, Beograd, 1984, 183−215.

[xv] About this issue, see more in [Д. Јанковић, Југословенско питање и Крфска декларација 1917. године, Beograd, 1967].

[xvi] On this issue, see more in [M. Bulajić, Ustashi Crimes of Genocide. The Role of the Vatican in the Break-up of the Yugoslav State. The Mission of the Vatican in the Independent State of Croatia, Belgrade: The Ministry of Information of the Republic of Serbia, 1993].

[xvii] On the relations between N. Pašić and A. Trumbić, see in [D. Djokic, Pašić and Trumbić: The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, London: Haus Publishing, 2010]. On N. Pašić’s relations with the Croat politicians in 1918−1923, see in [Ђ. Ђ. Станковић, Никола Пашић и Хрвати, 1918−1923, Београд: БИГЗ, 1995].

[xviii] About the political ideology of the Croatian Party of Rights, see in [M. Gross, A. Szabo, Prema hrvatskome građanskom društvu, Zagreb, 1992, pp. 257−265].

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