The main reasons for the convocation of the Corfu Conference in 1917
With regard to the question of the convocation of the Corfu Conference in June−July 1917, according to Dr. A. Trumbić, the main reasons and tasks of the conference were:
- The 1917 February/March Revolution in Russia followed by the US entering the war in April of the same year created new war circumstances and international atmosphere favorable for direct and ultimate negotiations between the Royal Government of Serbia and the Yugoslav Committee in London upon the future of the South Slavs after the Great War.
- Therefore, from spring 1917, it was impossible any more to keep the principles of the unification advocated by the Royal Government of Serbia.
- It was necessary to formulate officially one and common program of the unification of the South Slavs.
- It was necessary to agree with the Royal Government of Serbia on “territorial unification and internal organization of the common state…”.[i]
Obviously, the consequences of the Russian February (March) Revolution concerning Russia’s foreign policy in the Balkans became the focal reason for N. Pašić to accept A. Trumbić’s Yugoslav Committee in London as a negotiating actor with regard to the destiny of the Yugoslavs after WWI. By March (new calendar) 1917 the strain of the Great War crucially weakened the Imperial Government in Russia with liberals, socialists, generals, nobles and businessmen who were plotting its overthrow. The disturbances in St. Petersburg destroyed in four days the Imperial administration with sheer hunger turning wage demands into a general strike and bread lines followed by anti-governmental demonstrations. The Emperor (Tsar) Nicholas II set out for the capital from his headquarters at Mogilev, but, however, became prevented by the railway workers from arriving and on March 15th he abdicated in Pskov. The governmental authority now passed to the Provisional Government that was established by several politicians from the Parliament (Duma). However, its real power became limited by the existence of the St. Petersburg’s Council (Soviet) of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies which looked to for leadership by Soviets throughout Russia, effectively constituted an alternative Government forming at such a way a “dual power” effect which brought political instability in the country.[ii]
It is a true fact that after the 1917 February (March) Revolution in Russia all hopes by N. Pašić and his Royal Government concerning a possibility to create only a united national state of all Serbs but not Yugoslavia after the war disappeared for the very practical reason that a new Russian Government in St. Petersburg (Petrograd) did not give support for the creation of united national state of all Serbs.[iii] At such a way, after March 1917 and the dethronement of the Russian Emperor Nicholas II, an idea of a Greater Serbia was not supported by any of Great Powers during the war.[iv] In other words, historically and naturally, only Imperial Orthodox Russia was interested in the creation and existence of united Serbian lands – a state to be under the Russian protectorate.[v] N. Pašić’s main wartime task of the Kingdom of Serbia, based on a support by the Imperial Russia, disappeared when the new Russian Provisional Government declared on March 24th, 1917 that Russia wants to create around Serbia one “strongly organized Yugoslavia – as a barrier against the German aspirations”,[vi] but not a Greater Serbia with the same function as Yugoslavia. In one word, Imperial Orthodox Russia, as the only supporter of the idea of a Greater Serbia, did not exist anymore, and for that real fact the Prime Minister of Serbia had to adapt his post-war political plans to the new political reality in Europe after the 1917 Russian February (March) Revolution.[vii] It means that the alternative “Yugoslav” option of solving the Serbian national question after the war became optimal reality for the Government of Serbia in spring 1917, likewise for the Yugoslav Committee in London as well.
In the case of N. Pašić, it is obvious that the 1917 February (March) Russian Revolution was the crucial reason to change an attitude about Serbia’s war aims as he finally gave up idea to create a Greater Serbia and therefore accepted the idea of the creation of a common South Slavic state (without Bulgarians). However, in order to fulfill this new goal he had to directly negotiate with the representatives of the Yugoslav Committee, i.e., with the Croats. Nevertheless, it was only one out of three real reasons to bring together in the Corfu island in June−July 1917 around the table of negotiations the Royal Government of Serbia and the Yugoslav Committee.
The second reason, or better to say danger, became the possibility that the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary after the war would be preserved in some rearranged inner-administrative political form. The crux of the matter was that for both Serbia and the Yugoslav Committee, the existence of Austria-Hungary after the war in any form was unacceptable political solution. The problem was that this idea from the side of the South Slavs in the Dual Monarchy emerged again on May 30th, 1917 when the “Yugoslav” deputies in the Austro-Hungarian Parliament (the “Yugoslav Club”) demanded reconstruction of the post-war Dual Monarchy on the bases that all Austro-Hungarian provinces populated by the South Slavs (the “Yugoslavs”) should form a separate federal part of the Dual Monarchy “under the scepter of the Habsburg dynasty”.[viii] From this point of view, the Corfu Conference and its Declaration were the answers to the May Declaration by the South Slavic deputies in the Austria-Hungary’s Parliament. The third reason for convocation of the Corfu Conference was diplomatic mission to the Entente powers and its allies by Sixte de Bourbon, a brother-in-law of the last Austro-the Hungarian ruler (the Emperor Charles I of Austria and the King Charles IV of Hungary, 1916−1918), with regard to the possibility of signing a separate peace treaty with the Entente by the Dual Monarchy and at such a way to preserve the territorial integrity of the Dual Monarchy after the war. Therefore, the Corfu Declaration was a political demonstration by the Royal Government of Serbia and the Yugoslav Committee in London against any diplomatic attempt to preserve the Dual Monarchy after the war with the South Slavic provinces. However, in order to succeed in their anti-Austro-Hungarian plans, Serbia and the Yugoslav Committee had to achieve a bilateral agreement for the sake to have a common political platform before the Entente powers.[ix] Both N. Pašić and A. Trumbić understood well the real menace of the political act when on May 30th, 1917 the Yugoslav Parliamentary Group voted in the Vienna Parliament in favor of the Imperial May Declaration. This Yugoslav parliamentary group was composed of 33 Slovenian, Croatian, and Serbian representatives in the Imperial Chamber in Vienna. In addressing the Parliament, those representatives stressed that founded on national principles and the Croatian State law the unification of all lands of the Monarchy inhabited by Slovenians, Croats, and Serbs was necessary. Those lands would form one autonomous political-territorial entity under the rule of the Habsburg-Lorraine dynasty. In fact, the May Declaration represented the end of the dualist system of organization of Austria-Hungary fixed in 1867 and the realization of a concept of the Yugoslav program.[x]
The Italian diplomatic and military campaign in Albania and Epirus in spring 1917 was the last reason for the convocation of the Corfu Conference, which resulted in the signing of the Corfu Declaration. At that time, both Serbia and the Yugoslav Committee were under the menace by the Italian territorial aspirations in West Balkans. As it was noticed earlier, the Yugoslav Committee was established in 1915 in order to protect one part of the Yugoslav (Croatian and Slovenian) lands from the Italian territorial demands. However, at that time, the territory of the Kingdom of Serbia was not in danger either from the Italian territorial aspirations or the Italian diplomatic and military influence in Central Balkans. That was one of the reasons why Serbia was not in a hurry to make a final agreement concerning the creation of Yugoslavia with the Yugoslav Committee. Nevertheless, in spring 1917, alongside with the Yugoslav Committee, the Royal Government of Serbia was as well as under strong Italian threat as the Italian diplomatic and military activities in Albania and Epirus (the territories in the neighborhood of the Kingdom of Serbia) became obvious. It means that state’s territory and the borders of Serbia were in a question for the time after the war.
The first statement about the Italian political activities in Albania and Epirus, as a threat for Serbia, was sent to Serbia’s Regent A. Karađorđević, by Serbian vice-consul in Salonika, Nikola Jovanović, on March 3rd, 1917. According to him, the Italian plan was to unify Albania based on the Albanian claims on their ethnic rights. At that moment some Albanian ethnic lands (claimed by the Albanian propaganda to be only Albanian) have been under the Italian military occupation, and under the political protectorate of Rome. In fact, according to the report, a newly post-war Albania was to be, in fact, a Greater Albania, enlarged at least with Kosovo-Metohia and West Macedonia (and most probably with the Greek South Epirus), i.e., with the territories included into Serbia and Montenegro after the Balkan Wars in 1912–1913. The Serbian vice-consul thought that Italy wants to create a Greater Albania as the basis for the Italian political-economic post-war influence at the area of South Balkans (basically as the Italian colony as a territorial substitution for lost Ethiopia in 1896). The Serbian authorities have been in strong opinion that a Greater Albania under the Italian protectorate would be totally hostile towards Serbia and the Serbs what practically became true during WWII. In addition, the north-western Greek province of South Epirus was for the Italians only the “question of the Great Powers, but not the question of Greece”.[xi] Only five days later, N. Pašić sent a telegram to the Regent Alexander I Karađorđević with the information that one Italian general gave an anti-Serbian speech in Albanian town of Argirocastro criticizing Esad-Pasha’s pro-Serbian policy.[xii] At that moment Esad-Pasha was only Albanian leader who co-operated with the Serbian Royal Government among all Albanian political leaders. The Serbian ambassador in Athens, Živojin Balugdžić, informed his Government on April 8th, 1917 that an agreement upon Albania between Italy and France was achieved in Paris. According to this agreement, Italy would get territorial concessions in South Albania and Epirus in return for the Italian support of Entente’s policy towards Greece.[xiii]
Before his coming to Corfu island for the negotiations with the Royal Government of Serbia, A. Trumbić met in Nice Stojan Protić, the former Minister in the Royal Government of Serbia and at that time a representative of this Government in the Yugoslav Committee. Their consultations ended by making the mutual draft about the basic subjects for the coming discussions in Corfu. However, they did not make any final conclusion about the subjects of the future negotiations as they have not been authorized to do it. That was a reason that they in Nice only agreed about the main questions to be discussed at Corfu where the Royal Government of Serbia with the army was exiled after the military collapse of Serbia in autumn 1915.
The Royal Government of Serbia on its session held on June 14th, 1917 decided to officially negotiate with the Yugoslav Committee. However, according to the Royal Government of Serbia, the fundamental questions about the final type of the internal political organization of the future Yugoslav state had to be agreed after the war but not during the Corfu Conference. Therefore, the Royal Government of Serbia decided to recognize the Yugoslav Committee as an important factor in a process of creation of Yugoslavia but not as a representative-political institution of the South-Slavic people from the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary.[xiv] During the Corfu Conference, a President of the Yugoslav Committee A. Trumbić demanded that this organization should be recognized by Serbia as an official representative Government of all South-Slavs in the Dual Monarchy but this demand was rejected by N. Pašić.[xv] Nevertheless, during the Corfu negotiations, an intention by the Royal Government of Serbia was to present the “Yugoslav Question” as an international problem.[xvi]
At the Corfu Conference held from June 15th to July 15th 1918, the first official talks were held between the representatives of the Royal Government of Serbia and the Yugoslav Committee in London over several issues in regard to the question of Yugoslav unification but above all about the internal organization of future post-war Yugoslavia. During the negotiations, existed the division of views which have been quite opposite as the main problem was to establish either unitary or federalist form of internal constitutional arrangements. More precisely, those opposite views on the national question have been about the essence of the national unity of the so-called “three-named nation” of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenians, content of the national unitary state, the form of state’s Constitution, and finally about the foundations of the interim Government. Serbia’s PM N. Pašić was in opinion that, given the historical circumstances, the future of Yugoslavia was in the strong centralist and unitary state’s organization with local self-governmental authorities according to the existing Constitution of the Kingdom of Serbia. At the same time, he was rejecting the federalist system of state for the reason that it was being weak and short-term, promising to the representatives of the Yugoslav Committee to retain Croatian national, historical, and cultural specificities (coat-of-arms, anthem, alphabet, name, etc.). In contrast to N. Pašić’s opinion, the Croatian politicians insisted in simultaneous existence of the centralist legislation and administration but along with separate autonomies, legislatures, executive bodies, and assemblies in individual historical provinces.
To be continued
[i] A. Trumbić, “Nekoliko riječi o Krfskoj deklaraciji”, Bulletin Yougoslave, No. 26, November 1st, 1917, Jugoslavenski Odbor u Londonu, Zagreb: JAZU, 1966, p. 167.
[ii] G. Barraclough (ed.), The Times Atlas of World History, Revised Edition, Maplewood, New Jersey: Times Books Limited, 1986, p. 258.
[iii] On the February Revolution and the Provisional Government in St. Petersburg, see in [J. Anisimov, Rusijos istorija nuo Riuriko iki Putino. Žmonės. Įvykiai. Datos, Vilnius: Mokslo ir enciklopedijų leidybos centras. Vilnius, 2014, pp. 327−330].
[iv] The main figure in the 1917 February (March) Revolution in Russia was Alexander Fyodorovich Kerensky (1881−1970). He was a member of a moderate socialist party – Trudoviks. In the new Russian Provisional Government, he became a Minister of Justice and later a Minister of War. He was born in Ulyanovsk like Vladimir Ilich Lenin and was of the same ethnicity as Lenin was. We have to keep in mind that beyond the 1917 February (March) Revolution in Russia was the British diplomacy, while beyond the 1917 October (November) Revolution, led by V. I. Lenin, was, in fact, Germany.
[v] About the first serious Serbian plan to call Russia to become the protector of a united national state of the Serbs, see: Vladislav B. Sotirović, “The Memorandum (1804) by the Karlovci Metropolitan Stevan Stratimirović”, Serbian Studies: Journal of the North American Society for Serbian Studies, vol. 24, № 1−2, Bloomington, 2010, pp. 27−48.
[vi] A. Mandić, Fragmenti za historiju ujedinjenja, Zagreb, 1956, p. 77.
[vii] Jugoslavenski Odbor u Londonu, Zagreb: JAZU, 1966, p. 173.
[viii] F. Šišić, Dokumenti o postanku Kraljevine Srba, Hrvata i Slovenaca, 1914−1919, Zagreb 1920, p. 94; B. Petranović, Istorija Jugoslavije 1918−1988, I, Beograd: NOLIT, 1988, p. 18.
[ix] A. Н. Драгнић, Србија, Никола Пашић и Југославија, Београд: Народна радикална странка, 1994, p. 128.
[x] М. Радојевић, Љ. Димић, Србија у Великом рату 1914−1918, Београд: Српска књижевна задруга−Београдски форум за свет равноправних, 2014, pp. 250−251.
[xi] Aрхив Југославије, Београд, Канцеларија Њ. В. Краља, Ф-2.
[xii] Aрхив Југославије, Београд, Збирка Јована Јовановића Пижона, 80-9-44. Esad-Pasha was an Albanian feudal lord and politician who sided on the Serbian side during the First World War.
[xiii] Aрхив Југославије, Београд, Канцеларија Њ. В. Краља, Ф-2.
[xiv] The Royal Government of Serbia was treating the Yugoslav Committee in London as its propaganda agency in Europe for the very reason that the committee was mainly financially supported by Serbia.
[xv] Ђ. Ђ. Станковић, Никола Пашић и југословенско питање, II, Београд: БИГЗ, 1985, p. 181.
[xvi] Д. Јанковић, Југословенско питање и Крфска декларација, Београд, 1967, p. 197.