Versailles and Yugoslavia: ninety years on

Dejan Djokic
26 June 2009

On 28 June 1919, Germany and Allied and Associated Powers signed a peace treaty at Château de Dejan Djokić is lecturer in modern and contemporary history and director of the Centre for the Study of the Balkans at Goldsmiths College, University of London. His forthcoming publications are Pašić and Trumbić: The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (Haus, 2010) and New Perspectives on Yugoslavia: Key Issues and Controversies (Routledge, 2010, co-editor)

Also by Dejan Djokić in openDemocracy:

"Serbia: one year after the October revolution" (17 October 2001)

"A farewell to Yugoslavia" (10 April 2002)

"Serbia: monarchy and national identity" (30 May 2002)

"Ex-Yu rock" (6 August 2002)

"Serbian presidential elections" (17 September 2002)

"A conflict of loyalties: 1999 and 2003" (6 March 2003)

"The assassination of Zoran Djindjic" (13 March 2003)

"A democracy of suspicion" (27 May 2008)

"Radovan Karadzic's capture: a moment for history" (22 July 2008) Versailles, near Paris. Among the signatories was a new state with a somewhat "elephantine" name (in the words of a British official): the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, the original name for Yugoslavia. Versailles was the first of five peace treaties signed with the defeated Central Powers in various Parisian suburbs during the peace conference of 1919-20: Treaty of St Germain (with Austria, signed in September 1919); Neuilly (Bulgaria, November 1919); Trianon (Hungary, June 1920); and Sèvres (the Ottoman empire, August 1920). 

The legacy of the "German Treaty" has been a matter of an ongoing and well-known debate. Critics of the treaty have argued that it paved way for the Nazis' rise to power less than fifteen years later, while even its defenders admit that the moral and economic burden imposed on Germany seriously weakened, if not doomed, the Weimar Republic. Because of the importance of the treaty, sometimes the whole Paris conference is mistakenly referred to as the Versailles conference/treaty. 

Another oft-repeated error is that the Versailles Treaty created Yugoslavia (and Czechoslovakia). The Powers indirectly helped the creation of Yugoslavia and other Habsburg successor states by defeating and ultimately destroying Austria-Hungary. They did not oppose the unification of a Yugoslavia, which to them seemed a logical union of ethnically closely related peoples. The impetus for the union, however, came from within. The Yugoslavs, like the Czechoslovaks and the Poles, had already proclaimed their unification (restoration in the case of Poland) by the time the Conference convened in Paris in January 1919. The Serbo-Croat-Slovene kingdom was formed in Belgrade on 1 December 1918. The same month a provisional government and parliament were in place. The Allies accepted the new country was a reality. 

Between Serbia and Yugoslavia 

The Powers however refused officially to recognise the new state, largely because of the Yugoslav-Italian territorial dispute in the eastern Adriatic; instead they referred to its delegation in Paris as the delegation of the Kingdom of Serbia. The Italians claimed Istria and Dalmatia on historic and "legal" grounds. The latter claim was based on a secret treaty, signed in London in 1915, whereby the Allies (then including Tsarist Russia) promised these territories, largely populated by Slavs, but with a significant Italian minority, to Italy in exchange for Rome entering the war on their side. Serbia, although an ally, was not only not consulted - the treaty was kept a secret from its government because it was certain to oppose it in strongest terms. Indeed, at the Peace Conference, the Yugoslav delegation refused to accept the London Treaty and demanded the right to self-determination for the Yugoslavs living in Istria and Dalmatia. 

The Powers reserved a seat in Paris for Montenegro, another wartime ally -thus effectively refusing to recognise the Serb-Montenegrin unification, which preceded the unification of Yugoslavia. Montenegro and Serbia had united on 26 November 1918, but the unification was contested by the exiled King Nicholas and his supporters. Although Belgrade undoubtedly interfered in events in Montenegro, there was a strong pro-Serbian feeling in the country and those in favour of a union with Serbia prevailed. The leader of the unionists came to Paris, but as a member of the Serb-Croat-Slovene delegation. Despite Italy's support, Nicholas's pleas fell on deaf ears in Allied capitals. Montenegro's chair in Paris remained empty throughout the conference. 

Serbia, as one of the victorious powers, enjoyed high prestige; thus the Powers' insistence on referring to Yugoslav delegates as representatives of "Serbia" was not necessarily a disadvantage. Alone among smaller countries, Belgium and Serbia (sic) were allocated three seats each at the conference sessions, in recognition of their heroic war effort and contribution to the victory. 

Yet, the delegation, led by former Serbian prime minister Nikola Pašić and his deputy, Ante Trumbić, the first Yugoslav foreign minister and a Dalmatian Croat, insisted that it represented the new Yugoslav kingdom, not the old Serbian one. Replies to official correspondence sent to the "delegation of the Kingdom of Serbia" were written on paper headed Délégation du Royaume des Serbes, Croates et Slovènes. Trumbić's private secretary always answered the phone by repeating the full name of the delegation, even when Trumbić told him not to bother. (Incidentally, the secretary was the grandfather, and namesake, of the well-known British historian Stevan K Pavlowitch). 

The birth of a state  Also in openDemocracy on the legacies of 1918-19:

Carl Bildt, "Europe's future in the mirror of the Balkans" (2 April 2003)

Patrice de Beer, "Versailles to al-Qaida: tunnels of history" (9 November 2007)

Dan Todman, "How we remember them: the 1914-18 war today" (11 November 2008)

The Treaty of Versailles was the first major international document signed by official representatives of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. Therefore, it represents ipso facto recognition of the new state by the Paris Peace Conference and by the main powers (with the exception of the United States, which had recognised Yugoslavia already in February 1919). If Yugoslavia was born on 1 December 1918, its baptism took place on 28 June 1919.

To a contemporary observer it may have seemed as if fate had intervened and chosen the date for the signing of the Versailles treaty. It was on 28 June 1914 that Gavrilo Princip assassinated Franz Ferdinand and Sophie Chotek in Sarajevo, an event that sparked the war. It was also the anniversary of the  Kosovo battle of 1389, which inspired the Kosovo myth - a central narrative in Serbian and - in late 19th century and early 20th century - Yugoslav nationalist ideology.

In retrospect, one may be tempted to claim that international recognition of Yugoslavia on the major Serbian national holiday was ominous, just like it has been claimed in respect of the country's first constitution (adopted on 28 June 1921) which turned Yugoslavia into a Serb-dominated centralised state. It may be argued that it was symbolic that the treaty was signed on the anniversary of the Sarajevo assassination, but in reality the choice of the date was due to a set of circumstances and most likely a coincidence.

As for the Yugoslavs, although they at last secured recognition by the major powers, theirs was still a country with disputed frontiers. The succeeding treaties with neighbouring Austria, Bulgaria and Hungary would therefore be arguably more significant for the young state. Yet, even those treaties did not bring an end to Yugoslavia's struggle for borders. The greatest challenge was posed by two wartime allies: Italy and Romania. An agreement with Romania over the Banat region was eventually reached, but Italy would contest borders with Yugoslavia throughout the interwar period, despite the signing of the Rapallo Treaty, ratified by the Yugoslavs in November 1920 and by the Italians in February 1921. According to terms of the Treaty, Italy received Istria and Yugoslavia most of Dalmatia. The port of Fiume/Rijeka, occupied by Gabriele d'Annunzio's men since September 1919, was to be a free state. (In reality, it remained under Italian control until 1943).

Yugoslavia's international debut ninety years ago was a difficult one. External threats and internal conflicts, especially between Pašić and Trumbić, in some ways foreshadowed what was to come in the 1920s and 1930s. The country would nevertheless survive most of the violent 20th century and even rise from the ashes at the end of the second world war. But, that is another story...

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