The Partition of Yugoslavia: A Nazi Plan Recalled

By Thursfield, Patrick | Contemporary Review, September 2001 | Go to article overview

The Partition of Yugoslavia: A Nazi Plan Recalled

Thursfield, Patrick, Contemporary Review

The sight of Slobodan Milosevic being escorted from a plane to face justice before a court in The Hague is only the most dramatic of the recent events that have thrust the Balkans back onto the front pages of the world's newspapers. Most of the problems in that turbulent region, whether it be in Bosnia, Kosovo, or now Macedonia, flow from the break-up of Yugoslavia. In the last century the same conflicts led to the First World War and continued to be a bone of contention throughout the Second. An understanding of the area's history is absolutely necessary before anyone can try to find some peaceful solution.

The independent state of Yugoslavia was formed in 1920 when signatories to the Treaty of Trianon decided to partition the former Austro-Hungarian empire and reward Serbia ('Heroic Little Serbia') with several entire former Austrian provinces so that the King of Serbia would now rule an integrated Southern Slav state. That the peoples of the Balkans were of mixed race and religion, a kaleidoscopic mixture of Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim, unequally distributed, and comprising ethnic Serbs, Albanians, Slovenes, Wallachs, Hungarians, Austrians, and Italians, with a multiplicity of different languages - and that all these disparate groups had been enemies for centuries - did not bother the representatives of the western powers. They had gathered at Versailles already determined to dismember the Austro-Hungarian empire - and particularly to punish Hungary. This last aim was desperately unfair since Hungary had not wanted war and, unlike Germany, had not been ready for it. Some of the truth behind the events leadi ng to the outbreak of war in 1914 was not known until years after the war had ended, six million men had died on various fronts from the Somme to Gorizia and the eastern Carpathians, and three great dynasties had been toppled.

It was both tragic and ironic that Hungary, as the subsidiary partner in the Austro-Hungarian empire, should have been forced by Austria's stem ultimatum, to make war on Serbia in order to avenge the murder, by a Serbian terrorist, of the Archduke Franz-Ferdinand, heir to the aged Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria- Hungary. What was not known until later was that the Emperor, who was also King of Hungary and who detested the idea of war, was tricked by Conrad and Berchtold, his commander-in-chief and foreign secretary, into signing the ultimatum under the impression that Serbian forces had already crossed into Austrian territory. This had been done with the full knowledge and encouragement of Berlin, for the German government realised that rejection by Serbia was inevitable and would automatically lead to a declaration of war by Austria, thereby providing Germany, as Austria's ally, who had by then become increasingly paranoid about 'encirclement' by the western powers, with an excuse to invade Belgium so as to pre-empt any attack on Germany by Serbia's allies, France, England and Russia.

Also not generally known at the time, but suspected by a few clear-sighted statesmen in Hungary, was that for some time, at the Archduke Franz-Ferdinand's Werkstadt in 'Vienna's Belvedere Palace, his closest advisors had been plotting - once their master had succeeded as Emperor - to transform the Balkans, from Budapest to Istanbul, into a Habsburg-ruled hegemony with Austrian archdukes as puppet monarchs of a chain of dependent minor kingdoms. It seems that this was not even suspected by the Ballplatz, Austria's foreign ministry. As part of this plan the 1867 Compromise, by which Hungary had gained semi-independence from Austria though without being allowed a say in foreign affairs, state banking, or control of the empire's armed forces, would be abrogated. Franz-Ferdinand, though he would become King of Hungary, had never concealed his dislike both of that country and its people, and, on the rare occasions when he was obliged to visit Budapest, often refused to stay in the palace, preferring to return to s leep in the royal train.

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