USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945


The plan for unification of the South Slavs into one self-governing political entity was thought up in 1918. For centuries, the territory known collectively as the Balkans had been the contested frontier between the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the north and west, the Ottoman Empire to the south and east, and the Russian Empire (the great Slavic power and center of the pan-Slavism) looming to the northeast. Within the Balkans, history, language, religion and culture divided people ever further. Serbs, for example, understood a certain area to be the historical home of Serbia. Serbs spoke Serbian, the same basic language as Croatian, but written, like Russian, in the Cyrillic script. Serbs were primarily Orthodox Christians. Croats were Roman Catholic. Serbs were primarily rural dwellers, peasants and farmers with little access to the more cosmopolitan culture of the port cities. Croats faced the Adriatic Sea and had a long history of international commerce. Added to this were Slovenes, a people sandwiched between eastern Italy to the west, Croatia to the south and east, Austria to the north, and Hungary to the east. Slovenes spoke Slovene, were mostly Catholic like their Croat and Italian neighbors, and like other small ethnic groups in the late 19th century had developed a strong sense of their own national existence and destiny, which by the conclusion of WWI, they wanted to see fulfilled. As Austria-Hungary fell apart in the last years of the war, the idea of an independent Nation of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes emerged as the best political answer to the dilemma of what to do in the Balkans. Alone, each of these small peoples would have faced some serious deficiencies and would have bordered larger and more powerful neighbors. The Serbs, the driving force behind the union, believed that they would be able to dominate the new state and would benefit from the huge growth in size and increased influence in the region.

While the Nation of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later to become Yugoslavia) appeared without international input, its ultimate borders were fixed at the 1919 peace conference in Paris. The South Slav state faced a hostile neighbor on just about every border. To the west, Italy was demanding ports on the eastern side of the Adriatic Sea and was hostile to the enlarged Yugoslavia, which it considered a potential military threat. To the north, the borders with Austria and Hungary were also tense. While most Slovenes, for example, were incorporated into the new state, tens of thousands still lived in southern Austria – a potential source of conflict for the new Austrian government. Austria was still unhappy about losing all of its Balkan territory, including Slovenia, Bosnia and Montenegro. Hungary was very unhappy with the formation of the Yugoslav state, as it had to part with a section of the area known as the Banat. The Banat, a border region between Hungary, Serbia and Romania had been under the rule of the dual Austro-Hungarian Monarchy until the war. Romania and the new Yugoslav state divided most of it among themselves. Only a small sliver remained for Hungary – a point of great consternation in Budapest.

Nationalist sentiment, therefore, divided the new Yugoslavia both from within and beyond its borders. Inside the nation, tensions flared between the main constituent groups – Serbs, Croats and Slovenes – as well as between these groups and the minorities – Bosnians, Montenegrins, ethnic Hungarians and Austrians. The politics of ethnicity had created seemingly permanent fissures within the new state. The borders were no less contested. Italy, for example, was so opposed to the fixed border with Yugoslavia that it refused to sign the treaty and left the Paris peace conference in anger.

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