"Yugoslavia" means the "land of the South Slavs". The Slavs were a people speaking versions of the language-group known as Slavic, who probably originated somewhere around Poland; some of whom migrated southwards into the Balkans in the 7th century to be the ancestors of the Serbs, Croats and others. A Serb kingdom had formed in the 13th century, only to be crushed by the Turks at the battle of Kossovo in 1389.
My old Bartholomew atlas, published around 1880, depicts a situation in the Balkans very different from today. In the 16th century the entire region, including most of Hungary, had formed part of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, but by the late 19th century the Turkish tide had receded. Several new states had appeared: the Kingdoms of Greece, Bulgaria, Romania and Montenegro, with frontiers settled at the 1878 Congress of Berlin; and looming over them the Empires of Russia and Austria.
Since 1867 the Austrian Empire had been divided into two different administrations, with Franz Josef being simultaneously Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. Most of Croatia formed part of Hungary, but Slovenia and the Dalmatian coast were part of Austria. Although the Serbs and Croats spoke a common language, divisions between them were deep, for the Croats were Catholic and used the Roman alphabet, whereas the Serbs were Greek Orthodox and used the Greek script. Separate from both was Bosnia, which had a large Moslem population: in 1878 it formed a separate territory under Austrian supervision. Meanwhile the Ottoman Empire still included Albania, Macedonia, Kossovo and all the northern coast of the Aegean.
Peace prevailed in the Balkans for a generation, only to be threatened, though not broken, in 1908, when the Austrians took advantage of a period of Russian weakness to annex Bosnia outright. This alarmed and disgusted the Serbs. Henceforth Austria and Serbia were enemies: the Serbs now looked to Russia for protection against any Austrian aggression, and the Austrians for their part suspected the Serbs of stirring up subversion within the Empire. The Russians for their part were determined not to be diplomatically humiliated by Austria in the future.
In 1912 all the Balkan states joined together in a war against the Turks, and drove them back to the very gates of Constantinople, but immediately afterwards the other states turned against Bulgaria, which had made the most gains. The result was a new set of frontiers, with Albania as a new state, Macedonia and Kossovo going to Serbia and most of the north Aegean coast to Greece; but the other legacy was high casualties, great civilian suffering and many deep, underlying hatreds.
Everyone knows how in 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian Empire, was assassinated in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, by a group of young terrorists of Serbian race, and how the Austrian government (not without some justification) suspected involvement of the Serbian state in the murder. The Austrians, encouraged by Germany, decided to use this as an opportunity to destroy Serbia, and, after the Serbs had refused to accept a very tough ultimatum, declared war. But, unlike in 1908, the Russians felt they had to take a strong line, and mobilised their armies in Serbia's suport; and then Germany, alarmed by this, also mobilised, declared war on Russia and on Russia's principal ally, France. By these moves a quarrel in the Balkans led to the horrors of the First World War.
Serbia's losses in the war were exceptionally heavy for such a small country. Since 1911, over 1.2 million of her people had died, 28% of the population, two thirds of them being civilians. In addition, she now had to cope with 72,000 disabled veterans and 180,000 war widows. She would expect some recompence.
President Wilson's "14 Points" for a future peace settlement, issued in January 1918, made only brief and somewhat vague reference to the Balkans. Point 10 said that "The peoples of Austria-Hungary should be given the freest opportunity of autonomus development", and Point 11 that "Serbia should be accorded free and secure access to the sea". There was also Point 9, which promised "Readjustment of the frontiers of Italy to conform to clearly recognizable lines of nationality". The ambiguities were to lead to trouble.
In the autumn of 1918 the Austrian Empire disintegrated, and South Slav troops from her army took control of surrounding territories, including Bosnia, Herzegovina, Montenegro and the Dalmatian coast. But what sort of a government should emerge from this? Should it be a centralised state or a loose federation? Yugoslavia, the "Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes", which was envisaged, would actually include substantial minorities of ethnic Germans, Hungarians and Albanians, as well as Bosnian Moslems and considerable numbers of Jews. Furthermore, the Croat leader, Trumbic, despised the Serbs as "half-civilized", and in Montenegro there was civil war, involving groups loyal to the prewar royal family.
The strongest opposition to a Yugoslav state came from Italy. The Italians had been persuaded to enter the war by the 1915 Treaty of London, which promised them not only the Austrian port of Trieste at the head of the Adriatic, but also some of the Dalmatian coastline and a "protectorate" over Albania. They saw the Slovenes and Croats as enemies who had fought for Austria, and as the war ended, Italian troops entered these territories as conquerors, and Italian agents sought to stir up racial and social disputes. But President Wilson announced that he was not bound by the Treaty of London, and Britain and France,for different reasons, were sympathetic with the creation of a Yugoslav state. The peace negotiations at Versailles saw endless disputes about control of ports on the Dalmatian coast, which culminated in Orlando, the Italian Prime Minister, walking out of the talks in April 1919.
The future shape of the Balkans was settled in September 1919 by the Treaty of St. Germain with Austria and the Treaty of Trianon with Hungary. Both were reduced to their respective German-speaking and Magyar heartlands, as seen on present-day maps, and treated as defeated enemy powers. New countries emerged: Czechoslovakia in the north and Yugoslavia in the south, and Transylvania was awarded to Romania. Substantial racial minorities found themselves unwillingly placed under new rulers, not least in the new Yugoslavia. The main threat to the infant state came initially from Italy, which claimed the port of Fiume (now called Rijeka). In 1919 Fiume was occupied by a scratch force commanded by the posturing Italian romantic poet and novelist Gabriele d'Annunzio. He withdrew after the Treaty of Rapallo in 1920 awarded Istria and Zadar to Italy, and Fiume was later incorporated into Italy by Mussolini.
The interwar period was far from peaceful for Yugoslavia. King Alexander of Serbia became monarch of the new state, to the disgust of many Croats. They voted in large numbers for the People's Peasant Party, whose leader, Sjepan Radic, was then shot and fatally wounded in the Parliament building in Belgrade in 1928. The riots which followed the murder were suppressed, and next year King Alexander abolished the constitution and proclaimed a royal dictatorship. In 1934 a Croat Fascist movement, the Ustase, led by Ante Pavelic, asassinated the King in a visit to Marseilles. Yugoslavia was thus always simmering on the edge of violence, and one only has to read contemporary travellers' accounts, such as Rebecca West's "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon" to learn how much Serbs and Croats hated and mistrusted each other. All this was to boil over in scenes of hideous brutality in the Second World War.
(To be continued in a later post)