Self-determination, Again

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The experts did their best. As part of the huge American delegation to the conference (it filled the entire H’f4tel Grillon and then some), they ground out volumes of reports and studies to add to the paper monuments left in the conference’s aftermath. It was hard work. Once the word got out that Wilson was committed to self-determination, they (and he) were besieged by representatives of every subject populace in the world. In addition to the various Balkan nationalities, one observer remembered “Jews from Poland and Palestine and America … Arabs from their desert retreats, Koreans, Persians, Egyptians, and denizens of old Mount Lebanon, where King Solomon cut the cedars for his temple.” Plus “Negroes from our own South” and “workers—and women!” Early on even the President foresaw for many of them a “tragedy of disappointment.”

No ethnic group could be totally satisfied. The dismemberment of Austria-Hungary produced a reconstituted nation and two brand-new ones. Poland, partitioned in the eighteenth century, was restored to life. Czechoslovakia was a marriage of Czechs and Slovaks (it ended in divorce last year). And then there was Yugoslavia, or rather the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, as it was known at first. It was recognized in December of 1918, and its very existence under that name was a partial victory for the Croats and Slovenes. The Serbian government-in-exile had hoped for a Greater Serbia that would absorb all the Slavic subjects of Franz Josef. As it was, they got Montenegro, and it was Serbia’s king who took the new throne. What induced Serbs to accept the new arrangement was the need for a common front against Italy. The Italians demanded their rights under the Treaty of London, and self-determination be damned. At one point they walked out of the peace conference rather than accept the award of the Adriatic port of Fiume to Yugoslavia-to-be. (They returned after a compromise that made it a free city, but in 1922 they simply grabbed and kept most of it.)

Wilson learned that self-determination of national boundaries was far easier to proclaim than to achieve.

Wilson was furious with Italy but was quickly learning that self-determination of national boundaries was easier to proclaim than to achieve. Sometimes ethnic enclaves straddled natural defensive frontiers that separated new nations. Sometimes different nationalities occupied areas that self-evidently supported one another economically and needed union. Sometimes nationalities were so entangled (as, for example, in Macedonia) that no frontier would not leave some stranded unwillingly in Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, or Serbia. A reporter noted an exhausted Wilson one night, surrounded by his experts, on hands and knees, studying unrolled maps in search of elusive clarity.

In the end the President had raised hopes for what was nearly impossible. The final settlement of 1919 did not hold for long.

The Yugoslavian story is unfamiliar to American readers, but it is a contentious and bloody one, including secessions, occupations, coups, and civil wars. The current round is, alas, only the latest. The literature of 1919 records little of organized “ethnic cleansing” or religious conflict, but the seeds were there. An Italian general stationed in Dalmatia recommended to Rome that if it wanted to obstruct the creation of Yugoslavia (as it did), it should stir up dissension in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina among Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Muslim residents.

Most Americans do know that Wilson’s idealistic plans foundered at the peace conference, which produced a harsh settlement virtually guaranteed (especially with hindsight) to produce resentment and future war. I am not prepared to canonize Wilson as an unheeded prophet, or to denounce him as an impractical dreamer, or even to demonize the European statesmen who really did not believe that lasting peace was possible and who therefore tried to provide for their own future security by crushing Germany—and so brought on the precise war of revenge that they feared. They were simply the products of their own training—as obstinate in their self-assurance as any of today’s American wise men who tell us magisterially what we “must” do. When I listen to these last, I think painfully of Harold Nicolson’s assessment of the peacemakers of 1919: “The historian, with every justification, will come to the conclusion that we were very stupid men. I think we were. Yet I also think that the factor of stupidity is inseparable from all human affairs. It is too often disregarded as an inevitable concomitant of human behavior.”