Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Gavrilo Princip was a terrorist, but he was not Radovan Karadzic

Princip

This interview with Marko Attila Hoare was conducted by Bisera Fabrio for Jutarnji list and published in Croatian on 20 June 2014

Who started the war ?

World War I was a conflict with multiple layers. It began as a Balkan conflict between the two Balkan powers, Austria-Hungary and Serbia, but quickly expanded to become a war of Germany against the Franco-Russian alliance, after which other Great Powers and Balkan powers joined the war on one side or the other. So it did not have one single aggressor. The Sarajevo assassination was engineered by leaders of the extreme-nationalist, terrorist Serbian organisation ‘Unification or Death’, also known as the ‘Black Hand’, which must bear responsibility for provoking the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war on Serbia. However, the assassination did not reflect the policy of the Serbian government, and Vienna’s decision to go to war against Serbia was an expression of long-standing Austro-Hungarian imperialist plans. Austria-Hungary and Serbia each had predatory, expansionist designs against each other. However, Austria-Hungary, as the much bigger power, whose leadership officially decided on war, bears the greater responsibility for the outbreak.

Was the fatal shooting by Gavrilo Princip the true cause or simply the formal pretext for a great war that had long been ‘cooking’ ?

The Sarajevo assassination was the spark for the outbreak of a conflict that would almost certainly have happened anyway. However, it was not accidental that the conflict broke out over an event in the Balkans. Austria-Hungary had for decades sought to control Serbia, but Serbia had in the years before 1914 – particularly since 1903 – increasingly moved away from Vienna’s influence. Serbian leaders had long-term plans to ‘liberate’ or annex South Slav territory in Austria-Hungary, and the Black Hand supported terrorist acts like the Sarajevo assassination as part of a deliberate expansionist strategy. Austria-Hungary, for its part, sought to extend its imperial influence southward into the Balkans and viewed Serbia as lying in its natural path for expansion. Beyond this, Germany viewed the Balkans and the Ottoman Empire – the Near East – as a key sphere of influence, after it had largely been shut out of other areas for imperial expansion by the British and French. Russia viewed the possibility of Austro-German expansion into the Balkans as a mortal threat. France competed with Germany for influence over the Balkan states, while Italy competed with Austria-Hungary for influence over the Albanian lands. So the Balkans and Ottoman Empire were a key area of dispute – probably the most important area of dispute – between the Great Powers. Consequently when the assassination crisis broke out in June 1914, neither Austria-Hungary nor Germany nor Russia felt it could retreat.

Was it possible that the citizens of Austria-Hungary, that early summer in 1914, really did not expect any kind of military conflict, let alone a long war that would bring down the Monarchy ?

The citizens or subjects of the Habsburg monarchy were divided over how they viewed the crisis that erupted in June 1914. The war party, represented most prominently by the joint Austro-Hungarian foreign minister Count Leopold von Berchtold and by Chief of General Staff Conrad von Hoetzendorf, was determined to attack Serbia following the assassination, but they did not foresee that this action would result in a general European war lasting over four years, and they certainly did not predict that the war would result in the Habsburg Empire’s collapse. Others, particularly the Hungarian prime minister Istvan Tisza, hoped after the assassination that war could be avoided. Ironically, Hungarian resistance to a Habsburg war against Serbia helped to delay its outbreak, so that Vienna lost the chance to occupy Serbia quickly and present the other Great Powers with a fait accompli. This ensured that when war did break out, it would not remain localised between Serbia and Austria-Hungary, but become a general European war.

What did Serbia actually want ? What were its intentions toward Bosnia ?

Bosnia had formed a key goal of Serbian expansionist plans ever since Ilija Garasanin’s (in)famous ‘Plan’ (Nacertanije) in 1844. Following the Austro-Hungarian occupation of Bosnia-Hercegovina in 1878, those Serbian statesmen who favoured collaboration with Vienna – most notably Prince, later King Milan Obrenovic – chose to disregard Bosnia-Hercegovina and concentrate on southward expansion. But Bosnia-Hercegovina remained a long-term goal for nationalist Serbians, and the change of regime in Serbia in 1903, when King Aleksandar Obrenovic was murdered and replaced by Petar Karadjordjevic, brought to power those who certainly intended Serbia’s eventual expansion westward. This meant, firstly, the People’s Radical Party under Nikola Pasic, and secondly, the extreme nationalist army officers who had carried out the murder of King Aleksandar and who went on to found ‘Unification or Death’ in 1911. When Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia-Hercegovina in 1908, Pasic called for preparations for war, and something of a war psychosis gripped Serbia, with the formation of the ‘National Defence’ (Narodna Odbrana) organisation to wage guerrilla warfare in Bosnia-Hercegovina. However, when he subsequently became prime minister in 1912, Pasic pursued a more moderate policy toward Austria-Hungary, since he was focused on Serbia’s southward expansion against the Ottomans. After the Balkan Wars, Pasic wanted a period of peace to enable Serbia to assimilate the territory in Old Serbia (Kosovo) and Macedonia it had taken. It was the Black Hand, whose leading officers Dragutin Dimitrijevic-Apis and Vojislav Tankosic were behind the assassination, who were the real war-mongers on the Serbian side: they supported terrorism and aggression in Bosnia-Hercegovina, against Montenegro’s King Nikola, against Bulgaria, etc., as part of a consistent policy.

What was the state of inter-religious and interethnic relations in Bosnia-Hercegovina in 1914 ?

Inter-religious and interethnic relations in Bosnia-Hercegovina in 1914 were better than they would later be within the Yugoslav kingdom. Serbs and Muslims were divided by the question of land reform, since the majority of Orthodox Serb peasants in Bosnia-Hercegovina remained subject to Muslim landlords. Croats and Muslims were divided over the issue of Catholic proselytising. However, there was also a general degree of solidarity among members of the Serb, Croat and Muslim elites. Conservative Serb and Muslim leaders had collaborated in their demands for church and school autonomy from the Habsburg regime, and for Bosnian autonomy. Some of the more liberal Bosnian politicians favoured inter-religious and inter-ethnic collaboration on a pro-Yugoslav basis against the regime. The actions of Gavrilo Princip and his fellow assassins were those of an extremist fringe, and were condemned by mainstream Bosnian Serb political and religious figures. Although the assassination provoked a wave of attacks on Serb properties in Sarajevo, these were condemned by Catholic Archbishop Josip Stadler and by Reis ul-Ulema Dzemaludin Causevic. Yet even Princip’s Young Bosnia movement encompassed Croats and Muslims as well as Serbs. Inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations in Bosnia-Hercegovina would deteriorate sharply as the result of the establishment of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.

What was Young Bosnia ? Was it a Serb conspiratorial group, a wing of the Black Hand or an authentic Bosnian illegal organisation ?

Young Bosnia was an ill-defined, loose network of Bosnian student radicals. It was numerically dominated by Serbs and many of its supporters were at least unconsciously inspired by the tradition of Serb Orthodox Christianity. However, its political goals bridged the gap between Great Serb nationalism and pro-Yugoslav ideas, and its adherents came to support common South Slav unification based on the overcoming of religious and ethnic differences between Serbs, Croats and Muslims. Consequently it was able to recruit Croats and Muslims as well as Serbs. Young Bosnia was an indigenous Bosnian movement, but it was co-opted by the Black Hand which sought to use it to advance its own expansionist goals. The Black Hand organised a guerrilla training school in Prokuplje in Serbia that prepared young people from Bosnia-Hercegovina to engage in terrorist activities. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, engineered by Apis and Tankosic and carried out by Bosnian Black Hand agents – Princip in conjunction with others – represented the culmination of these activities. The assassination cannot be understood unless both the indigenous Bosnian element (Young Bosnia) and the external Serbian element (Black Hand) are both taken into account together.

Gavrilo Princip was in the period of Tito’s Yugoslavia treated as an extraordinary historical figure; as a revolutionary who initiated the emancipation of the Yugoslav peoples; the forerunner of the people’s heroes of the Second World War. Today he is, at least in Croatia, looked upon differently – some consider him a murderer and terrorist, and others an exponent of Serb nationalism…

He is a figure that understandably divides Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks today. His political goals stood on the border between Great-Serb nationalism and Yugoslavism; he was very much Serb in his background, but he came to embrace a form of South Slav unification that stressed unity between Serbs, Croats and Muslims. He expressed violent hatred for the Sarajevo carsija, that from a contemporary perspective reminds us of Radovan Karadzic. However, his patriotic hatred was directed primarily against the foreign, Habsburg occupier, rather than against Croats or Muslims. His assassination set off a chain of events that had disastrous consequences for the South Slavs. Serbia was militarily crushed by the Central Powers in World War I, and only ended up on the winning side by luck: it was the US’s intervention in World War I that led to an Allied victory, in which Serbia was freed from occupation. The establishment of Yugoslavia was disastrous for Bosnia-Hercegovina’s peoples, and to a lesser extent for Croatia’s: it led to the Chetnik and Ustasha genocides of 1941 and to Milosevic’s and Karadzic’s genocide in the 1990s. We can reasonably view the assassination, leading to the establishment of Yugoslavia, as a historic wrong turn for the South Slav peoples of the Habsburg Empire. Some Young Bosnia supporters became notorious Chetniks in World War II. But it is important to remember that Princip was not Karadzic; he did not plan or engage in genocide.

Was the assassination of the heir to the throne Franz Ferdinand a terrorist act, as the Austro-Hungarian authorities understandably treated it at the time and as it is today treated by some historians, or was it in fact a patriotic act, as it is treated by the majority of Serb and pro-Serb historians ? If it was patriotic, what kind of patriotism was it ? Serb ? Bosnian ?

The assassination was undoubtedly a terrorist act, and it enjoyed no general support or democratic sanction among the Bosnian population – not even among the Serb population. So it cannot be considered as a legitimate act of a genuine national-liberation movement. But the assassins viewed themselves as patriots, and were undoubtedly sincere in their belief that they were acting in the best interests of their people. They did not have clearly worked out political goals – they were very young people, largely teenagers. They supported the liberation and unification of the South Slavs in general terms. Their patriotism was of a kind that blended Serb patriotism, Serbo-Croat patriotism, Bosnian patriotism and Yugoslav patriotism.

Was the goal of Young Bosnia to ‘expel’ Austria-Hungary from Bosnia-Hercegovina, which would then become an independent state, or to annex Bosnia to Serbia ?

Young Bosnia was a loose network with an imprecise membership – it was not a proper political organisation, and it did not have a precise programme. Its members broadly believed that Serbs, Croats and Muslims were the same nation, and they broadly sought Austria-Hungary’s expulsion from the South Slav lands so that these could be united with Serbia in a common South Slav state. In general, Young Bosnia’s members believed that Bosnia-Hercegovina belonged neither to Serbia nor to Croatia, but to both equally. At his trial, assassin Vasa Cubrilovic described his identity as ‘Serbo-Croat’, while Trifko Grabez said ‘I was not led by Serbia but solely by Bosnia’.

How much did the new, post-war (1918) geopolitical picture of the Balkans influence the fact that at the end of the twentieth century a number of national states were established ?

Those who defend the Versailles settlement claim that it permitted the liberation of the subject peoples from the former European empires – particularly the Habsburg Empire – and enabled them to form their own national states. However, from the point of view of the South Slav inhabitants of the Habsburg Empire – roughly speaking, the peoples of the lands that today comprise Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina and Vojvodina – 1918 arguably resulted in the exchange of one slavery for another. In the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, both Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina lost the parliaments and autonomy they had enjoyed in the Habsburg Empire, and relations between Serbs and non-Serbs became worse, not better. In retrospect, we can view the Yugoslav period (1918-1992) as a transitional phase on the road to independent national statehood for the Croats and Slovenes (although the Bosnian question remains unresolved today). The establishment of Yugoslavia on a centralised, Serbian-dominated basis in 1918-1921 made it very likely, if not inevitable, that the country would eventually break up in favour of independent national states.

Was Austria-Hungary a precursor to the European Union ?

No; Austria-Hungary was a multinational dynastic state that predated the independent national statehoods of its peoples, whereas the European Union is a multinational union built from independent nation-states. Only by freeing themselves from rule by the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, Russian and other empires and establishing themselves as independent states, could the European nations go on to establish something like the European Union.

What was the key cause of the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy ? The burning, militant nationalism of its various peoples or the rigid centralism of Vienna and Budapest ? We see that in contemporary Europe nationalism is rising…

Historians debate how inevitable the break-up of Austria-Hungary was; whether it might have survived had its leaders been more accommodating toward its non-German and non-Magyar peoples, or if there had been no World War I. But I believe pre-national multinational unions like Austria-Hungary and Yugoslavia ultimately had no future. As a general rule, unless a state is underpinned by a common national identity shared by most of its citizens, then it cannot survive in the face of democracy. Because people will generally want their nation to be free and independent, not to be ruled by an alien master. The question is today how many more independent nation-states will one day appear in Europe: Scotland, Catalonia, Chechnya, etc. ?

What kind of lesson can Europe today draw from the Great War ?

That the peace of Europe is best secured when the continent is organised on the basis of independent, democratic national states in which the rights of national minorities are fully respected. And when these states are united in trans-national unions or associations – political, economic and military – that provide a common framework for interaction while respecting the sovereignty of each member.

If, after a hundred years, historians from either side of the Drina cannot even agree on who started the war, let alone who was really to blame for it, how can we expect that this part of Europe will truly be stabilised politically ? It turns out that the debate over the First World War is itself the pretext for a new war, at least among historians if not politically…

The establishment of the former Yugoslav lands as seven fully-functioning, fully sovereign states – Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo – and their unification within the European Union and NATO would provide the best guarantee for the region’s stabilisation. In such a case, the disputes of the past will matter less. Unfortunately, this process is stalled, and the futures of Bosnia-Hercegovina, Kosovo and Macedonia, in particular, appear uncertain. If Europe’s leaders remain unwilling to take the necessary steps to restore Bosnia-Hercegovina as a functioning state and to bring it into the EU along with Kosovo and Macedonia, then they will be responsible for any new conflict that breaks out.

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Friday, 27 June 2014 Posted by | Balkans, Bosnia, Central Europe, Croatia, Former Yugoslavia, Marko Attila Hoare, Serbia | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Progress is possible in the Balkans – why can’t the EU push for it ?

There are at least two reasons why the last two months have been good for the Balkans.

The first is that what is left of the propaganda edifice constructed by the Serb nationalists during the wars of the 1990s has received three heavy blows. Serb nationalists and their Western lobbyists spent the best part of these wars trying to convince the world that Serb war-crimes were mostly the fabrication of a hostile international media. For example, apologists such as John Pilger have long claimed that mass graves of Kosovo Albanians were as non-existent as Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, and that not enough Albanian bodies have been discovered to support the figure of approximately 10,000 Albanians killed by Serbian forces in 1998-1999. Yet on 10 May of this year, Serbia’s War Crimes Prosecution Office announced that a mass grave, thought to contain the bodies of about 250 ethnic Albanians, was discovered at Raska in southwestern Serbia, near the border with Kosova. The slow but steady location and identification of the remains of the victims of the wars are important not only for the relatives of the dead, but for making the publics of the region – and particularly the Serbian public – aware of the incontrovertible reality of the war-crimes.

Another favourite tactic of the Serb-nationalists propagandists was to muddy the water, by arguing that Croatian, Bosnian, Kosova Albanian and NATO forces were as guilty of atrocities as the Serb forces, or even more so. Perhaps the most graphically gruesome assertion used to support this argument was that the Kosova Liberation Army was guilty of systematically removing and trafficking the internal organs of their Serb captives – a rumour that was started by Carla del Ponte, the maverick former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, then eagerly seized upon by the water-muddiers. Yet shortly after the discovery of the Raska mass grave, the BBC reported that ‘Three parallel international investigations, by war crimes investigators from Serbia, the European Union, and the Council of Europe, have failed to uncover any evidence that the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) trafficked the organs of captives, according to sources close to each investigation.’ Although the KLA did commit atrocities – as all national-liberation movements that resort to armed struggle do – the myth that its atrocities represented a degree of evil equivalent to the Milosevic regime’s systematic ethnic-cleansing of hundreds of thousands of its own citizens has now been laid to rest.

The third blow against Serb-nationalist propaganda was a spectacular own goal. Ever since 1992, Serb nationalists claimed that the war in Bosnia was not a war of aggression waged by Serbia against its neighbour, but a ‘civil war’ between the Bosnian Serbs, Croats and Muslims, in which Serbia merely assisted the Bosnian Serbs. However, Serbia is currently attempting to secure the extradition of former Bosnian vice-president Ejup Ganic from the UK to Serbia to face spurious ‘war-crimes’ charges, and in order to have the legal right to do this, it has had to accept that at the time of Ganic’s alleged crimes, in early May 1992, an ‘international armed conflict’ was taking place between Serbia and Bosnia. Thus, it has casually torpedoed the eighteen-year-old myth of a Bosnian ‘civil war’.

The steady collapse of Serb-nationalist wartime mythology in the light of new research and developments is part and parcel of the post-war normalisation of the Balkan region. It means a steadily greater awareness – in Serbia, in the Balkan region and in the world as a whole – of the true nature of the wars of the former Yugoslavia. These were wars for which a single regime – that of Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade – was overwhelmingly to blame, and responsible for most of the killing. The more Serbia’s citizens become aware of this, the less inclined will they be to support aggressive policies reminiscent of Milosevic, while the more the international public becomes aware of it, the less inclined will the international community be to appease any further such policies. Belgrade’s ongoing attempt to have Ganic extradited is, of course, evidence that Serbia has not completely turned its back on Milosevic’s legacy, but the cup of reform is at least half full, and every myth demolished adds another drop.

The second, and more substantial reason why this has been a good period for the Balkans, is the belated resolution of the Slovenian-Croatian border dispute. In a referendum on 6 June, Slovenia’s citizens voted 51.5%, in a turnout of just over 42%, to permit the border dispute to be resolved through international arbitration. The referendum result removes the last major obstacle to Croatia’s membership of the EU, and marks a major step forward for the Euro-Atlantic integration of the former-Yugoslav region. Despite the low turnout, the referendum result indicates a degree of political maturity on the party of Slovenia’s citizens. The Slovenian attempt to hold up the entire process of EU expansion in the Western Balkans to make a cheap territorial grab has proven extremely damaging to Slovenia’s international standing, and damaging to the wellbeing of the entire region. In rejecting the siren call of nationalism made by the Slovenian opposition under Janez Jansa, in favour of harmony within the EU and the region, Slovenia’s people demonstrated an admirable appreciation of where their national interest lies.

Readers might argue that Slovenia is not part of the Balkans, yet the country has recently joined a Balkan regional body, the Southeast European Cooperation Process (SEECP), that includes all the Balkan states except Kosova, including Moldova and Turkey. Somewhat belatedly, given that the body was established in 1996 and its other members all joined by 2007. Despite their proudly felt Central European identity, the Slovenians realise their national interest lies in participating in and facilitating South East European regional cooperation. Their readiness settle their border dispute with Croatia on a fair basis my be linked to this perception.

The Slovenian case demonstrates that the states of the region are not immune to soft pressure from the international community, even if they do happen to be EU members. It provides a model for a possible resolution of another dispute arising from the break-up of Yugoslavia involving an EU member and a candidate country: the Greek-Macedonian ‘name dispute’. EU and NATO members should put pressure on the parties to this dispute to permit it to be settled by binding international arbitration, in the manner of the Slovenian-Croatian border dispute. With Greece in the throes of acute economic and social crisis, with its social capital expended and its international standing at an all-time low, an ideal opportunity exists to pressurise Greece to accept this. However, bizarre as it may seem to any rational person unaccustomed to the perverse ethics of the EU, the latter has rewarded Greece for its spectacular economic selfishness and irresponsibility with a still more craven appeasement of its anti-Macedonian nationalist policy.

The EU’s failure to resolve the Greek-Macedonian conflict, despite ample opportunity, is contributing to the deterioration in relations between the political parties in Macedonia representing the country’s two principle nationalities: the ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians. Ethnic-Albanian parties, who do not feel particularly committed to the country’s constitutional name, are increasingly frustrated with the Macedonian government’s failure to progress toward EU membership in light of Greece’s veto. In a worse case scenario, this could lead to the collapse of the Macedonian state and a new regional conflagration, drawing in Macedonia’s neighbours and potentially spreading to other Albanian-inhabited Balkan states. If this were to occur, the EU would have only itself to blame.

Thankfully, such a catastrophe does not appear imminent. The same cannot, unfortunately, be said for another consequence of EU vacillation: the alienation of Turkey from the Western alliance. Turkey’s increasingly aggressive policy of Israel-baiting, manifested most spectacularly in its permitting of the Gaza aid flotilla to sail from its shores last month, with predictable bloody consequences, is the bastard child of the Franco-German-led policy of keeping Turkey out of the EU. Turkey’s turn toward Iran and Syria and away from Israel cannot be excused, but it can be understood, as the rising Turkish regional superpower seeks to carve out a new, more Islamic and Middle Eastern role for itself in place of its denied EU role. Instead of being drawn into the club, where it would have to play by the rules, Turkey has been left outside, where it is increasingly going rogue.

It would not require superhuman  efforts on the part of the UK and its allies to keep the Balkans on the straight and narrow. The region is slowly and unsteadily reforming, but faces a number of surmountable obstacles, which we are in a position to help it overcome. Weakened, discredited Greece could be pressurised to lift its veto on Macedonia’s EU and NATO accession, and the EU member  states could make a joint and unambiguous commitment to Turkish membership when certain conditions are met. The tragedy is that even these easy steps are blocked by the selfish and short-sighted interests of certain EU members, above all France and Germany. The UK needs to break ranks more openly with them with regard to both issues, and to campaign loudly and publicly for a change in EU policy. We must point out the potentially catastrophic consequences for Europe and the Middle East of abandoning Macedonia and Turkey, and say openly whose fault it will be if things go further wrong. We might offend our allies now, but that is preferable to having to clean up their mess tomorrow.

This article was published today on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010 Posted by | Balkans, Croatia, European Union, Former Yugoslavia, Genocide, Greece, Kosovo, Macedonia, Marko Attila Hoare, Serbia, Turkey | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The false god of national unification

Garibaldi

Review of Srdja Pavlovic, Balkan Anschluss: The Annexation of Montenegro and the Creation of the Common South Slav State, Purdue University Press, West Lafayette, Indiana, 2008

Garibaldi has a lot to answer for. This is a conclusion that can reasonably be drawn from a survey of the train-wreck of contemporary Italian politics. Spectacular endemic corruption, rampant xenophobia, exceptionally brutal police, fascists at the centre of mainstream political life, moves to rehabilitate wartime fascists, state fingerprinting of gypsies, laws against ‘un-Italian’ food, an exceptionally vulgar populist prime minister with a burgeoning personality cult, boring football – all are characteristic of the country that was the model for ‘successful’ national unification in the nineteenth century. Nor is this an ephemeral phenomenon – Italy, the principal incubator of the fascist virus in the interwar period, simply has never worked very well as a country. Vast repression and bloodshed, claiming tens of thousands of lives, were required to impose Piedmontese rule on southern Italy in the 1860s. The unnatural imposition, in the 1860s and 70s, of a unitary national state on a peninsula that had experienced centuries of regional diversity in its forms of government, has produced a polity whose dysfunctionality appears incurable.

Italy merely exemplifies the dubious benefits brought to us by the nineteenth-century fad for joining smaller pieces of territory up to produce bigger states. After two world wars and one Holocaust, nobody should try to claim that the unification of Germany has been an unmixed blessing for humanity. After Italy and Germany, it was Romania that produced probably the most powerful indigenous fascist movement in interwar Europe, in the form of the Legion of Archangel Michael or Iron Guard- a Romania that was formed from the merger of diverse lands during the second half of the nineteenth and first decades of the twentieth centuries: Wallachia, Moldavia, Northern Dobrudja, Southern Dobrudja, Transylvania, Bessarabia, Bukovina. Indeed, the rise of dictatorships across Central and Eastern Europe in the interwar period was not unrelated to the fact that many of the states of the region had been formed from mergers of diverse territories. Polities that had developed along organically distinct paths for centuries were suddenly ‘unified’ and forced to function as seamless wholes, despite having had no tradition of doing so. The resulting internal political fragmentation and instability provided fertile ground for dictators to impose ‘order’, while the need to create and staff new state bureaucracies meant the churning out of large numbers of impoverished university graduates who could be, as in the case of Romania, natural recruits for fascist movements.

The more closely one examines the record of ‘national unification’, the worse it appears. The union of Scotland with England to form a united kingdom of Great Britain worked fine, if one believed in the common Anglo-Scottish project of trampling the Irish, fighting the French, fighting Papists generally and conquering the lands of darker-skinned people. But many Scottish people understandably feel today that their country is marginalised in the union with England. As for the union of Great Britain and Ireland to form the United Kingdom – the less said about that the better. The imposition of a centralised, uniform administrative system on France during the French Revolution, binding together a formerly diverse medley of traditional territorial entities, grew inexorably into the most aggressive programme of territorial expansionism that post-medieval Europe had ever seen, in which the French armies reached as far as Moscow.

More recently, the attempt by Croat fascists to incorporate the whole of overwhelmingly non-Croat Bosnia within a Great Croatia in World War II involved genocide against the Serb population of Bosnia, and has cast a shadow over the subsequent history of inter-ethnic relations in the country. Cyprus’s contemporary misfortunes stem from the suicidal efforts of extreme Greek nationalists, after Cypriot independence in 1960, to pursue union with Greece, which eventually provoked the Turkish invasion of the country. The history of Serbia in the 1990s needs no comment.

Conversely, countries that have escaped incorporation in greater nation-building projects have generally not suffered for it. The people of Luxembourg, Liechtenstein and Austria are hardly suffering today from the fact that they are not part of Germany. Cyprus certainly benefits from being an independent state with its own UN seat, rather than a provincial backwater of a Greater Greece. Indeed, the most successful, stable democracies in Europe have generally been those with relatively small populations that have retained the same borders and continuity of administration for long periods: Switzerland, the Nordic and the Benelux countries.

Yet of all experiments at national unification in modern European history, few, if any, have been such an unmitigated disaster as the attempt to unify diverse South Slavic lands within a single, Yugoslav state. Whereas the territorial unifications of Italy and Germany have been successfully achieved at enormous bloodshed and dubious long-term benefit for the populations in question, in the case of Yugoslavia, the price in blood was paid, but territorial unification was merely transient, and at least one of the lands involved – Bosnia – appears to have been irredeemably ruined by the experience. This is partly, of course, because Yugoslavia was not merely an experiment in national unification, but in unifying different nations to form a supranational whole. It may nevertheless be fruitful to situate the Yugoslav case in a wider European context.

The story of Serbia and Croatia and their unhappy experience of shared statehood is a familiar one. Although there was more of an overlap in nationhood between the Serbs and the Croats than some Croat nationalists in particular like to admit – as exemplified by individuals such as the Bosnian Nobel laureate Ivo Andric, who belonged to both nations – the Serbs and Croats were already two distinct nations when Serbia and Croatia united with each other, and with other countries, to form the ‘Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes’ in 1918 – subsequently renamed ‘Yugoslavia’.

A less familiar story, but one that follows more closely the European pattern of national unification as outlined above, is the story of the unification of Montenegro with Serbia in 1918, which immediately preceded the establishment of the Yugoslav state. For the first time, we now have an excellent introduction to the topic for the English-language reader, in Srdja Pavlovic’s ‘Balkan Anschluss: The Annexation of Montenegro and the Creation of the Common South Slavic State’. Although Pavlovic does not discuss his use of the term ‘Anschluss’ to describe Serbia’s annexation of Montenegro in 1918, the reason becomes apparent as his account progresses; he is not comparing Serbia’s rulers with the Nazis, but rather drawing an informed analogy as to what ‘unification’ meant for Montenegro. For if at one level the annexation represented the fulfilment of the goal of Serb national unification as understood by one section of the Montenegrin political nation, yet it was also an act of usurpation carried out by radical nationalists, in violation of Montenegro’s constitutional system and state traditions; one that necessitated bloody repression against those Montenegrins who, though accepting union with Serbia, wanted it on terms more respectful of Montenegro’s individuality.

Montenegro before 1918 was in many ways to Serbia what Austria before 1938 was to Germany. Pavlovic presents the Serb national identification as being wholly dominant among Montenegro’s political and intellectual classes by 1918, yet as he explains, it did not follow from this that Serbia’s absorption of Montenegro on the Piedmontese model was universally desired. Contrary to what nationalists believe, a nation is not a seamless garment. As Pavlovic describes, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Montenegro’s own rulers – who bore the title of ‘vladika’ or ‘prince-bishop’ – themselves held different views of Montenegro’s national destiny, viewing it either as the attainment of Montenegro’s independence within enlarged borders, on the basis of Montenegrin state-right, or as submersion in a larger empire – either Christian, Slavic or Serbian. Montenegrin national discourse therefore possessed two traditions.

Montenegrins were bitterly divided over the question of union with Serbia in 1918. As Pavlovic explains, the tendency of existing historiography to present this division as being between unionists (‘Whites’) and separatists or reactionaries (‘Greens’) does not do justice to the latter’s case. For those Montenegrins who opposed unification as it was carried out by the Whites themselves accepted the need for Montenegro’s unification with Serbia in principle. However, they believed that this unification should be on the basis of Montenegro’s constitution and laws, with Montenegro becoming a constituent part of the new South Slavic union in its own right. They objected to the unconstitutional, arbitrary way in which the unification was carried out, and to the simple absorption of the country by Serbia, without any respect for its state tradition or individuality. They were, in sum, the more enlightened and far-seeing as well as moderate of the two camps.

Serbia, which controlled the Montenegrin army during World War I, pursued a strategy that ensured that neither this army, nor the Montenegrin state, would survive the war, so that they would prove no obstacle to the eventual annexation, or to the deposition of Montenegro’s King Nikola and his Petrovic-Njegos dynasty. The act of union was carried out while Montenegro was under Serbian military control; the elections to the ‘Great People’s Assembly’ that was to proclaim the union, and the proceedings of the assembly itself, were manipulated by the Serbian-backed unionists to ensure that the Greens would lose. In the run-up to the elections, possible opponents of union were prevented by the Serbian army from returning to the country, as was King Nikola himself. A prominent supporter of union, Janko Spasojevic, himself admitted before the Assembly that its declaration of union represented ‘a coup d’etat by peaceful means’.

The manner in which unification was engineered represented a violation of the rights of that section of the Montenegrin people that opposed it, and provoked a civil war that continued well into the 1920s, which the regime in Belgrade won only with much bloodshed and repression. The fissure that was created between Montenegrins was enormously damaging to the country, and ensured that when civil war erupted again, under Axis occupation during World War II, the loss of life would be enormous.

The brutal act of unification also represented a blow against the possibility that the new Yugoslav state itself might be established on a healthy basis. The Assembly’s resolution on unification made no mention of Yugoslavia or the wider South Slavic context. By annexing Montenegro outright, Serbia’s preponderance in relation to the other Yugoslav lands was made still greater, helping to ensure the domination of the Serbian political classes over the new state. The imposition of a centralist constitution, in violation of the national aspirations of most non-Serbs, was thereby facilitated – an act from which all Yugoslavia’s subsequent woes followed. Had Montenegro entered Yugoslavia as a distinct entity, the internal Yugoslav imbalance between Serbia and the western South Slav lands would have been that much less. Montenegro’s annexation was, therefore, a tragedy for the whole Yugoslav experiment.

Pavlovic’s book is a balanced work on a neglected topic that avoids polemical excesses and presents both the ‘White’ and the ‘Green’ points of view. He reminds us that nationhood is not black and white, and what it means to belong to a particular nation is frequently unclear or disputed among members of the nation themselves. His study is testimony to the damaging effect of attempts to impose a one-size-fits-all model of nationhood on diverse territories with their own particular traditions and nuanced identities. Damaging, among other things, for the goal of national unification itself – the attempt to unite Montenegro with Serbia, like the attempt to unite Austria with Germany, was ultimately unsuccessful, despite the enormous cost in blood.

Today, Montenegro and Serbia exist as independent states, wholly separate from one another, the unionist dream having ended in nothing. Both countries are likely to be happier for that.

Thursday, 21 May 2009 Posted by | Balkans, Former Yugoslavia, Montenegro, Serbia | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment