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Self-determination, Again

June 2024
5min read

The sad lessons of 1919 are eloquent about today’s endlessly wretched situation in the Balkans

The chronicles of our time will someday record how President Clinton struggled in the earliest months of his administration to find an appropriate response for the United States to the civil war and “ethnic cleansing” taking place in Bosnia. As a historian and an American I’ve watched the agonizing process with no rigid opinions, but with a deep sense of sadness and resignation to the inevitabilities of history. There will be no easy or permanent solution to the murderous clash of nationalities that has followed the breakup of Yugoslavia. That nation itself was an artificial creation, a union of convenience among hostile peoples. It emerged in 1919 from what was then the bloodiest war in history, and it took the form it did partly because an American President had an idealistic vision. There is something like the tragic fulfillment of a historical curse in the events that bring Bill Clinton to wrestle with dilemmas unsuccessfully addressed by Woodrow Wilson three-quaters of a century ago. Before criticizing other nations for what they do or do not do in the situation, Americans should recall the record.

Begin in 1914. Present-day Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina were then Adriatic shoreline provinces of the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary. The dual monarch was the eighty-four-year-old Hapsburg emperor Franz Josef, who ruled from Vienna, to the great dissatisfaction of the many ethnic minorities included in his far-flung domains. There were two independent “southern Slavic” countries: “little Montenegro,” immortalized in The Great Gatsby , and landlocked Serbia, nearly in the center of the Balkan Peninsula, which had hopes of someday reaching the sea through union or alliance with fellow Slavs freed from Austro-Hungarian control. The issue actually triggered the First World War. After a Serbian nationalist assassinated an Austrian archduke at Sarajevo, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. The alliance system then in force led to a fatal chain reaction.

The Great Powers fought the war desperately and cynically. In 1915, with things going badly for them, the Allies, in the secret Treaty of London, bribed Italy to join their side by promising it a large segment of the Adriatic coastline, known as Dalmatia, to be detached from Austria-Hungary after victory. They did not bother to consult with or inform their small ally Serbia, much less the Croats and Slovenes who (along with some Italians) occupied the area marked for transfer. A year later, in a similar secret deal, they brought in Romania with the offer of more Austro-Hungarian territories containing a large Serb populace. By then Serbia had been overrun by the Central Powers, Germany and AustriaHungary, with help from Bulgaria, enlisted to their cause by similar promises of territorial spoil.

Here is where Woodrow Wilson comes in. It was this casual and underhanded disposition of the fate of millions of voiceless peoples that he saw as one of the worst features of traditional diplomacy and, what was more, as a root cause of endless wars, that of 1914 being only the latest example. He had hoped and expected that the United States would stay out of it, but by April 1917 the German submarine campaign forced him reluctantly to lead the United States into the struggle. Still, he was determined that if Americans joined the slaughter, it should be for some higher purpose than strategic gain—nothing less than the wipeout of the entire old system of autocracy, rivalry, and war.

In January of 1918 Wilson set out his war aims in a speech to Congress. They were the celebrated Fourteen Points. The first four called, in effect, for open diplomacy, freedom of international trade and travel, and worldwide disarmament. A fifth proposed to settle colonial disputes with concern for the wishes of the inhabitants. Eight more dealt with postwar Europe, and two of these specifically called for breaking up Austria-Hungary into its separate nationalities and redrawing Balkan boundaries along national lines. The final point called for an association of nations to enforce the new order. Whatever the Allied governments thought of the Fourteen Points, they sounded magnificent to exhausted European peoples mourning their millions of war dead. The Germans over I threw the kaiser in the expectation of getting peace on Wilsonian terms, and when the President himself went to Europe in December of 1918, he was hysterically cheered as a savior by mobs in every capital that he visited.

Wilson was more than a simple moralist. He was prepared to build a new political geography not merely on democratic but on progressive and scientific principles. He had already created a committee of experts (dubbed the American Inquiry) comprising dozens of political scientists, historians, ethnographers, and economists, most of them professors as he himself had been. Under the leadership of Professor Isaiah Bowman of Yale, who was also president of the American Geographical Society, they came aboard the steamer George Washington with him for the trip to the Paris Peace Conference. They were to offer recommendations based on the idea that every territorial settlement must be made “in the interest for and the benefit of the populations concerned,” a principle handily summarized by the term self-determination . Wilson gathered them in his cabin and declared: “Tell me what is right and I’ll fight for it. Give me a guaranteed position.”

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.”

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