The Partition Of Yugoslavia: A Nazi Plan Recalled

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.

Referring to this in the thirties the Hungarian politician and writer, Count Miklos Banffy, makes an old Romanian politician from Transylvania, then still a part of Hungary, say, in They Were Divided (Vol. III of his Transylvanian trilogy): 'Fate has a macabre sense of humour, has she not? Our poor Archduke was murdered by the Slays whom he loved and wanted to make great; and now the Hungarians, whom he hated, are making war to revenge him.' Both Hungary and Austria were to pay dearly for the war which followed.

A further irony, which was also only revealed many years later, was that Count Istvan Tisza, the Hungarian prime minister, who had fought hard at the Emperor's privy council to avert the war, had offered his resignation when he had been outvoted, and only remained in office at the express wish of the old Emperor, who saw in him the only Hungarian political leader strong enough to lead the country in such an emergency. To pile on the agony, at the end of four years of slaughter and humiliating defeats in the field, Tisza, of all people, was himself blamed for leading his country into war, and brutally murdered.

After Trianon, Hungary had found herself not only deprived of a third of her former territories, but also faced with vindictive diplomacy on the part of the newly-formed, or enlarged, neighbouring states, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia, which last did all she could to prevent Hungary being accepted as a full member of the newly-formed League of Nations. This was only foiled by the cunning diplomacy of Banffy, then Hungary's foreign minister. Soon the multifarious problems facing the new states led to their virtually treating Hungary as if she did not exist.

Yugoslavia's difficulties were the most complicated, but somehow, faced with the myriad problems of his heterogenous country Alexander, the Karageorgevic king of Serbia now greatly enlarged into the state of Yugoslavia – despite eventually himself being assassinated in Marseilles – managed to keep order among his turbulent subjects. His effective control was then maintained by his brother, Prince Paul, who had become Regent during the minority of King Alexander's son, Peter. When, however, the German army invaded Yugoslavia in 1941, the royal government's control of the country started to disintegrate due to the growing power and influence of the disparate bands of partisans who fought a guerrilla war against the invader (and sometimes among themselves), but who all had very different ideas as to what sort of government they would like to see after the Germans had been defeated, which, to their credit, none of them ever doubted. However, despite his desperate attempts to fight off a German occupation, includ ing even a humiliating visit to Hitler at Berchtesgaden, Prince Paul found he had lost all authority, was forced to abdicate as Regent and left the country. So, unfortunately, did the young King Peter, who escaped from the royal palace by shinning down a drainpipe, and fled to London. There were still many royalists in the country but the young king forfeited any sympathy, from those who might have stood by him, by staying away and getting married in England instead of letting his private life wait while he led the fight against the invader.

Nazi Germany, though subject to the unpredictable whims of Hitler, did not always disregard the feelings of the newly subjected peoples (nor was as insensitive to them as one might think). On the contrary, she was only too ready to exploit them for her own purposes. Her intelligence services were fully aware of the centuries-old hatred between the Croatians and the Serbs, just as they understood the irrendentist ambitions of fascist Italy and the need to offer some reward to the Balkan states of Romania and Bulgaria who had remained loyal to the Axis.

A plan, originally conceived in Italy and later agreed by Germany, was then evolved which the Axis hoped would please their wartime allies as well as ensuring the permanent ineffectiveness of ferociously independent little Serbia. This plan, needless to say, soon reached the ears of the British war office and a map of the proposed post-war partition of the Balkans states, now annotated in English, was printed in 1944 presumably for military planning purposes. A copy of this map recently came unexpectedly into my hands and I have a copy of it in front of me as I write. It makes a fascinating study for anyone interested in the arrogance of national planners when they are offered the chance of manipulating the future of defeated states.

Now we must return to 1939 in the months before the war broke out. For some years Italy had cast envious eyes across the Adriatic hoping some day not only to recuperate all that part of the Dalmation coast which had once been part of the extensive Venetian empire, but also to extend her sovereignty to the Fiume peninsula and its hinterland, all former provinces of Austria-Hungary and, since 1920 included in the new state of Yugoslavia. As early as January, 1939, even before Italy's invasion and occupation of Albania and Montenegro in April of the same year, Mussolini's government had started negotiations with Ante Pavelic to subsidize his Croatian separatist movement. In the intervening two years before Germany invaded southern Yugoslavia and Greece (through Bulgaria) in April 1941, Italy was busy planning, once the war had been won, to restore Montenegro as an independent kingdom as well as to create a new kingdom of Croatia. Originally the idea was to make either Prince Michael or Prince Roman, both member s of the ruling Petrovitch family, into king but neither accepted, believing that eventually Italy and Germany would be defeated. Then it was proposed that Queen Elena, wife of King Victor Emmanuel of Italy, who had been born a Montenegrin princess, should be proclaimed Queen in her own right. This pleased her, but no-one else; and eventually the appointment of one or more native-born 'Regents' was discussed.

This idea suited no-one since it seemed to offer an unfortunate opportunity for those very regents to pursue a policy of obtaining true independence. Then the Croatian separatists, pushed by Rome, offered the crown to King Victor-Emmanuel, though later it was agreed that the Duke of Spoleto, a cousin of the king, would be a better choice. While all this was still being discussed Germany moved into Yugoslavia and Greece and so Italy's plans became subject to Germany's approval. Mussolini and Count Ciano, his son-in-law and foreign minister, became increasingly suspicious of German intentions, though no moves were made to displace the Italian military governor of Croatia nor the Italian troops he relied upon to keep order.

It is unclear when Italy and Germany finalized their plans for the post-war partition of Yugoslavia but the proposed new borders must have been drawn up before 1944 for by then most of Italy was in Allied hands, Churchill's plan to meet the Russian army on the Danube had been abandoned and our intelligence services had already started preparing for the liberation (and restoration to the status quo ante) of the Yugoslav state.

What, however, is most interesting today about the dispositions of the ItaloGerman plan, is that they combine a callous disregard of whatever the people of the Balkans themselves might want in a post-war world with a cunning exploitation of their ancient feuds and jealousies.

The principal proposition was this 'independent' Kingdom of Croatia, which would in truth be a client state of Italy. This was to be the reward for the help Italy had given Germany in the war. The new Croatian kingdom would include most of Slavonia (except for some token restitutions to Hungary of territory north of the Drava river which had been wrested from her in 1920), and Bosnia-Herzegovina, but not Dalmatia, once part of the extensive Venetian empire, nor the separate enclave of the Gulf of Kotor (also Venetian for several hundred years after its capture in 1378), which were to have been joined to the Fiume peninsula and together restored to Italian administration. Italy was also to receive the southern half of Slovenia, while the northern half, which marched with the Austrian province of Carinthia, is shown as going 'To Germany' — for since the Anschluss in 1938 Nazi maps showed Austria as a part of that country. Montenegro was once again to be independent, presumably also as a client state of Italy.

There is one feature of the map which defies rational explanation unless it is that someone, either in Rome, Berlin or the British war office, was somewhat shaky when it came to the geography of the Balkans. According to the proposed new frontier lines on the map, the western part of the Banat, former Hungarian territory at the east of the river Tisza on a line from Belgrade to Szeged in Hungary (which was ceded to Yugoslavia in 1920), but not the eastern half which had been ceded to Romania, is also clearly marked 'To Germany'! This makes no sense as it is separated from Austria (Germany to the Nazis) by the whole of Hungary.

Serbia was also to lose Kosovo, which was to be joined to an independent Albania, presumably partly because of the ethnic majority of Albanians in that much-prized Serbian province, and partly, no doubt, further to emasculate and humiliate Serbia. Bulgaria was to be rewarded with Macedonia. My map does not go more than a mile or two south of the old (and present) border between Macedonia and Greece but, judging by the type of line used to mark it, it looks as if Greece too, or at any rate its most northern province, which included Salonika, was also to be ceded to Bulgaria.

It is ironic that Germany's intention of partitioning Yugoslavia should, some 40 years after Germany's defeat, have been effected by the disparate peoples of that region themselves. There are, of course, many differences. The Kingdom of Croatia was never to be — and indeed, as a wry mention in the diaries of Count Ciano shows, the Duke of Spoleto somehow always managed to be unavailable when an official visit of inspection was proposed — but Croatia did become an independent state, and so did Slovenia. Montenegro is still intact with its own government, and though still nominally a federated state under Serbian suzerainty, has, since the war in Kosovo, done its utmost to distance itself from Belgrade. Macedonia, once part of the Yugoslav federation, is now independent. The western Banat has remained Serbian, while Italy never obtained either any part of Slovenia, Dalmatia or Kotor, or even the Fiume peninsula, though she did regain Trieste after the war in spite of much opposition from Tito's Yugoslavia.

It is a sobering thought that somewhere to-day the shades of those wartime Nazi planners may be laughing among themselves at the thought that something on the lines they had foreseen would eventually be achieved by those very people Germany had sought so drastically to separate for her own very different purposes.

Patrick Thursfield, with Katalin Banffy-Jelen, have recently published their English translation of Miklos Banffy's Transylvanian Trilogy — Vol I: They Were Counted, (1999), Vol II: They Were Found Wanting, (May, 2000), Vol III: They Were Divided (June, 2001) — Arcadia Books, London.

The Partition Of Yugoslavia: A Nazi Plan Recalled

Contemporary Review, Sept, 2001 by Patrick Thursfield

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