National minorities in Eastern Europe, 1848-1945, Raymond Pearson


The artificiality of the entirely novel states of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia was most striking. Expedient agglomerations of territory attached at Allied insistence to the supposedly more mature 'cores' of (respectively) Bohemia and Serbia, their total lack of organic development got the new states off to a shaky start. The frontiers of the states were so arbitrary, with the scantiest regard for national identities or the opinions of the resident populations, that quarrels over territory were unavoidable. Within each state, the largest nationality failed to reach majority status, weakening its overall authority and offering the various minorities considerable scope for opposition (whether constitutional or illegal). The combination of undeniable artificiality, the antagonism of neighbouring states and the numerical weakness of the leading nationality made Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia the most vulnerable of the east European states.

The manner of their creation threw the gravest doubts on their political legitimacy. The concept of a political union between Czechs and Slovaks was never submitted to the democratic vote. In wartime, a referendum on union between the Austrian Czechs and the Hungarian Slovaks would have been suppressed as, at very least, a breach of the Ausgleich. In peacetime, a referendum could only embarrass a state which had already been concocted and approved by the Allies under circumstances rather less than democratic. The political duo who 'created' Czechoslovakia, Tomas Masaryk and Edvard Benes achieved their remarkable success by a well-orchestrated but almost clandestine campaign of back-stage lobbying of the Allies. Assuming that the Czechs would not mount any rebellion against the Habsburgs – and indeed the underground nationalist movement in Bohemia (quaintly styled the Maffia) maintained the lowest of profiles until 1918 itself – Masaryk and Benes gambled boldly on Allied victory in the First World War. Masaryk was particularly adroit at exploiting his academic contacts in the West to meet and eventually to convert the principal Allied statesmen; especially that other professor-turned-politician, Woodrow Wilson of America.

Perhaps the strongest ploy to 'legitimise' Czecho-Slovakia before it existed was Masaryk's series of undertakings to emigrant communities. Forcibly deprived of a mandate from the Czechs in Bohemia and the Slovaks in Slovakia, Masaryk struck deals with the only Czechs and Slovaks who were available to him. By late 1915, the Czech National Association and the Slovak League in America had agreed to campaign for a federal Czecho-Slovak state. In May 1918 Masaryk signed the 'Pittsburgh Agreement' with the leaders of the largest émigré Slovak settlement in America, guaranteeing Slovakia's autonomy within a future Czecho-Slovak state. The mobilisation of the émigré communities was necessary to provide the Czecho-Slovak movement with essential financial resources and a popular pseudo-mandate. Great credit must go to Masaryk and Benes as organisers, tirelessly lobbying the influential, perceptively exploiting the political moment and determinedly employing all the resources accessible. Regrettably, the opinion of the inhabitants of the projected CzechoSlovakia was unavailable and became a matter of little political account. To a remarkable extent, Czecho-Slovakia was manufactured in the West, by Czech refugees under licence from the Allies in co-operation with emigrants out of touch with the opinion of their homeland, and then presented to the indigenous Czech and Slovak populations as a fait accompli for their rapturous applause. Critics of Czecho-Slovakia could claim with some truth that the new state was a preposterous confidence-trick pulled by an unrepresentative clique on both the Allies and the unsuspecting populations of Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia.

The demographic composition of Czechoslovakia compounded all the other weaknesses of the state. The only common factor among the heterogeneous territories of Czechoslovakia was the Habsburg inheritance but even here there were significant complications: while the western regions of Bohemia and Moravia had been part of relatively benevolent and prosperous Austria after 1867, the eastern areas of Slovakia and Ruthenia had languished under Hungarian jurisdiction. The result was a contrast in political, economic and social development between east and west which imposed an almost schizophrenic identity and its own separate challenge to the integrity of the state.

The national composition of Czechoslovakia {see Table VIII) was ethnically complex. Sensitive to its demographic weakness, the Czech establishment stubbornly adhered to the fiction of an official 'Czecho-Slovak' identity, which mustered an imposing 64.1 per cent of the total population. By refusing to allow a distinction to be drawn in official censuses and statistics between Czechs and Slovaks, the establishment attempted to conceal the fact that the Czech nation constituted less than one-half of the population. Independent evidence would suggest that the Czech population reached around 7,250,000 or some 48 per cent of the total. Even so, the Czechs were numerically dominant, commanding over twice as many bodies as their nearest rivals, a clear advantage reinforced by their qualitative superiority over all other groups.

TABLE VIII National Composition of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia

(a) Czechoslovakia (Census of 1930)
Nationality Population % of total
Czecho-Slovaks 9,750,000 64.1
Germans 3,318,000 22.5
Magyars    720,000   4.9
Ruthenes    569,000   3.9
Jews    205,000   1.4
Poles    100,000   0.7
Gypsies      33,000   0.2
Others      35,000   0.2
Total 14,730,000 98.9

 (b) Yugoslavia (Census of 1931)
Nationality Population % of total
Serbo-Croats 10,731,000 77.0
Slovenes   1,135,000   8.1
Albanians      505,000   3.6
Germans      500,000   3.6
Magyars      468,000   3.4
Rumanians      138,000   1.0
Turks      133,000   0.9
Gypsies        70,000   0.5
Jews        18,000   0.1
Others      236,000   1.8
Total 13,934,000 100

There was never any doubt that the German minority would prove the most troublesome. Over the late nineteenth century, the Germans of Bohemia had been the most obstinate of all Habsburg nationalities in the almost fanatical defence of their privileged position. An example of nationalism being most vigorous on the ethnic frontier, the over 3,000,000 Germans were settled sufficiently compactly in Prague and the Sudetenland to make boundary revision in favour of Germany seem both practical and desirable. Their change in fortunes in 1919 further radicalised the Germans: demoted overnight from being the local agents of the dominant nationality of the Habsburg Empire to being a national minority in a Slav state ruled by the hated Czechs, the Germans were alienated from Czechoslovakia irremediably by their collapse of status. Some tactless moves by the government still further antagonised the German minority, although complaints to the League of Nations about Czech victimisation were usually only the squeals of the wealthy at having their disproportionately large share of the general wealth eroded by government economic policies of redistribution and egalitarianism. With so many problems of local reconciliation to diminution in power, prestige and wealth, the Sudeten Germans under Konrad Henlein were easily exploited by Hitler to provide a pretext for territorial takeover in autumn 1938.

The Slovak minority, estimated at 2,500,000 or 16 per cent of the total population, had a different cause for complaint. Czech insistence on bracketing the Slovaks into a corporate (and entirely bogus) 'Czecho-Slovak' nationality both denied the Slovaks a separate identity and served as a cover for Slovak subordination. When in the course of the 1920s 'Czechohlovakia' entered into official usage, the Slovaks were incensed by the further reduction in their status that 'de-hyphenisation' implied. The Pittsburgh Agreement of 1918, by which Slovakia was promised a separate Diet and autonomy within a federal state, was never implemented. Czech officials flooded into Slovakia on a scale bound to provoke local resentment. The Czech explanation was that the backwardness of Slovakia could only be remedied by a programme of accelerated economic and social development, staffed by Czechs only because of the natural but temporary shortage of qualified Slovak personnel. The jaundiced Slovak view was that the Czechs were imposing colonial-style rule on Slovakia and maintaining a monopoly on the most powerful and best-paid jobs. In economic terms certainly, although the standard of living in Slovakia improved in the 1920s, there was no sign of any dramatic benefits of the Czech 'crash programme'. Indeed, over the whole inter-war period, the Czech standard of living rose more than the Slovak, actually increasing the gap between the Czechs and Slovaks which had been inherited from Austria-Hungary. In these circumstances, a sense of legitimate grievance fostered the recovery of a Slovak nationalism almost crippled by Magyarisation before 1914. A cultural revival soon gave Slovaks a more developed sense of national identity and an autonomist Slovak People's Party headed by the populist priest Monsignor Hlinka attracted wide support despite its extremism. When in 1928 the Slovak Professor Tuka claimed that the validity of the agreements contracted in 1918 was limited to ten years and therefore Slovakia now had both the right and – considering its recent treatment – the reason to secede from Czecho-Slovakia, he was tried for treason and sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment. By such acts of political folly are nationalist martyrs made! Czech insensitivity to Slovak nationalism was the principal cause of the separatist trend which became increasingly well-supported in the course of the 1930s.

A Magyar minority of some 700,000 persistently pursued an irredentist policy, spurred on by a combination of self-interest (like the Germans they had suddenly lost their local dominance to become an isolated minority in a Slav state) and active incitement by the Hungarian government. The compactness of Magyar settlement along the southern border of Slovakia made a minor local revision in favour of Hungary seem feasible and ensured that the discriminatory, ethnically indefensible boundary and the close proximity of the Magyar kin state would prevent the Magyar minority ever reconciling itself to forcible incorporation into Czechoslovakia.

The Ruthene position was somewhat similar to the Slovak. In religious terms, the Catholic Slovaks and Uniate Ruthenes were innately suspicious of the 'Hussite' Czechs. In constitutional terms, the 'Philadelphia Agreement' in October 1918 between Masaryk and Zatkovic, the spokesman of the Ruthene emigrant community in America, had promised – like the Pittsburgh Agreement for the Slovaks – autonomy within a federal state. Moreover, the Treaty of St Germain specifically stipulated autonomy for Ruthenia, a condition repeated in the Czecho-Slovak Minorities Treaty. The promise was never kept by the Czechs. An attempt by Hugh Seton-Watson to explain away the Czech action sounds lame. “The country was so backward and the people so lacking in political feeling that it is highly questionable whether autonomy would have been possible... the Czechs can therefore to some extent be pardoned for breaking their word”. Although Ruthene nationalism was at an early stage of development, the cavalier and unprincipled breach of faith on the part of the Czechs contributed nothing to fostering a general allegiance to a state which was perilously contrived territorially.

For all its democratic reputation in the (gullible) West and comforting undertakings from Benes in 1920 to make the new state into 'a kind of Switzerland', Czechoslovakia was never a federation of nationalities. The very heterogeneity and artificiality of Czechoslovakia were taken as justification for a firmly unitary state policy, an attitude perfectly comprehensible to a Habsburg. In operating what was in practice a Czech empire, the Czechs broke all their early promises to their 'subordinate minorities' in a manner almost calculated to antagonise them. With the national minorities in definably compact settlements, with a relatively low incidence of the kind of territorial inter-mixing that erodes ethnic loyalties, the task of either assimilation or cultivation of supra-national allegiance was complicated by the menacing proximity of powerful and historically well-established neighbours. In terms of composition, setting and policy, the long-term prospects for Czechoslovakia were far from promising.

The responsibility for the creation of Yugoslavia must also be divided between the victorious Allies and émigré activists advancing views untypical of public opinion in their homelands. As with Czechoslovakia, there could have been no Yugoslavia without the collapse of Austria-Hungary. Self-appointed 'ambassadors' for the Yugoslav ideal, Frano Supilo and Ante Trumbic lived in London from 1915, performing as effective (and deceitful) a job of persuading the Allies as Masaryk and Benes. Just as Masaryk, with his Czech-Slovak parentage, was the ideal personality to promote 'Czechoslovakia', so the Dalmatians Supilo and Trumbic {and later the Croat-Slovene Tito), with no personal stakes in the traditional Serb-Croat rivalry, were the natural publicists for 'Yugoslavia'. Once again, the absence of any democratic mandate for the ambitious and controversial scheme being advanced was shrugged off as a misfortune of war and proved little impediment to Allied recognition of the 'Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes' which announced its own creation in December 1918. Unlike the Czech lands, however, the South Slav area in general (and Serbia in particular) had been so harshly treated by the First World War that the Allies felt an extra moral responsibility to provide some recompense for the carnage suffered by the local population. The greater the damage inflicted on a nationality by the war, the firmer was its determination to secure some substantial reward, a conviction which the Allies were prepared to indulge provided that the torment had been incurred for the winning side.

As another totally new state with only the most tenuous medieval antecedents, Yugoslavia found its patent artificiality (and constitutionally irregular origins) so undermining its general legitimacy as to provoke the hatred and competitive acquisitiveness of longer-established neighbours. Hardly a single frontier of Yugoslavia could be termed settled and uncontentious throughout the 1920s and i 1930s. To the north-west, the Istria area with the ports of Trieste and Fiume were claimed by Italy under the provisions of the Treaty of London of 1915, despite a Slovene majority and the considerable embarrassment of the Allies. Arguments with Austria to the north were shrill until calmed by the Klagenfurt plebiscite of i gau. The long frontier with Hungary was bitterly disputed by the Budapest government as isolating substantial settlements of Magyars in the Banat area of Yugoslavia. In the south, Albania complained about the large Albanian colony included in the Kosovo area of Yugoslavia. To the south-east, the acquisition by Yugoslavia of Macedonia, the traditional prize of Balkan victory in the last decades of peace, incited the Greeks to advance ambitious claims and galvanised the Bulgars into a sustained campaign of cross-frontier provocation and terrorism. By ethnic consensus, only in the north-west was Yugoslavia too small: the collective opinion of its neighbours was that on every other compass point Yugoslavia was too large.

In ethnic composition, Yugoslavia was even more diverse than Czechoslovakia (see Table VIIIb). With eight nationalities numbering over 100,000 people, the threat of internal fragmentation could never be ignored. At the same time, the national balance of Yugoslavia offered some grounds for hope. Racially, the Slavs together polled 85.1 per cent of the population, leaving the non-Slav nationalities deeply divided and numerically unimpressive. Yugoslavia’s non-Slav minorities level of only 14.9 per cent made it racially stronger than Czechoslovakia, with a level of 32 per cent. Moreover, while the leading non-Slav challengers within Czechoslovakia were the Germans, numbering over 3,000,000 people (or 22.5 per cent of the population), the equivalent challengers within Yugoslavia were the Albanians, mustering only 500,000 people {or 3.6 per cent of the population). In racial terms, therefore, Yugoslavia had a clear advantage over Czechoslovakia.

The Serbs intended to dominate the new state. Like the Czechs, the Serbs obscured their demographic weakness by officially introducing a composite 'Serbo-Croat' nationality, an ethnic bracketing even more preposterous than the 'Czecho-Slovak'. The 'Serbo-Croat', a statistical monstrosity if ever there was one, included not only the unarguably distinct Serbs and Croats but Macedonians, Montenegrins and even Bulgars. The most accurate definition of a 'Serbo-Croat' was really that of any Slav in Yugoslavia who was not a Slovene. Independent evidence suggests that the Serbs probably numbered about 6,000,000 or around only 43 per cent of the total, a slightly weaker position than that of the Czechs within Czechoslovakia. Although almost one-half was an intimidating proportion of the total, the Serb position was in reality much weaker than the Czech: while Czech quality was the highest in 'their' state, Serb quality lagged behind that of both the Croats and Slovenes: and while the Czechs had come through the First 'World War relatively unseathed, the Serbs had been decimated by the experience. Notwithstanding these disadvantages, the Serbs saw hegemony in the new Yugoslavia as their natural right after a century of fighting and suffering for its creation. The constitution of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was proclaimed on the Serb national holiday of Vidovdan in 1921, emphasising with the bluntest symbolism possible that the new state would be, in effect, a Serb empire.

The 'Vidovdan Constitution', with its unitary concentration of power in the Serb capital of Belgrade, provoked immediate and sustained resistance from most of the non-Serb minorities. As the largest minority by far – probably mustering up to 3,500,000 people or 25 per cent of the total – the Croats assumed the leadership of a broad campaign against Serb domination, agitating from their capital Zagreb for a federal constitution. Throughout the 1920s the political storm threatened to spill over parliamentary confines and become a general civil war. The shooting of the Croat leader Stjepan Radic in the Skupstina (Parliament) itself in 1928 was prevented from becoming the trigger of Croat insurgence only by the intercession of King Alexander. Suspending the contentious Vidovdan Constitution, Alexander promoted a new administration claiming a supra-nationality, South Slav rationale. The divisive-sounding Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes' was rechristened 'Yugoslavia'. Novel administrative units called banovine deliberately cutting across traditional frontiers of nationality were established, with unemotive topographical names, in the hope that a genuine sense of South Slav unity might begin to grow.

The Croats were not mollified. As a more prosperous people, the Croats were taxed at a higher rate than the Serbs, adding economic to political grievance. Many minorities suspected Alexander of cynically exploiting the Croat crisis to justify his own dictatorship, a prejudice buttressed by his refusal to tackle the Croat question directly once in power. When Alexander was assassinated by a Macedonian terrorist in 1934, the Croat issue was primed to explode. Thereafter, Alexander's successor Prince Paul, acting as Regent, attempted to find a modus vivendi with the Croats in the teeth of the hostility of the Serbs (who saw any concession as prompting general disintegration) and the misgivings of other minorities (who suspected a sell-out to the Croats would leave them worse off than before). The smaller minorities were not altogether wrong. In August 1939, a Sporazum between Serbs and Croats established a separate, territorially generous banovina of Croatia, with virtual autonomy for the Croats except over certain specified state functions. It is tempting to see the Sporazum of 1939 as the Yugoslav equivalent of the Ausgleich of 1867. In both instances, the dominant nationality conceded junior partnership to its leading challenger, creating a more stable political establishment the better to resist the nationalist threat from the remaining minorities. The new partners (Magyars and Croats) undoubtedly got the best of the deal, the senior partners (Austrians and Serbs) were more dubious and the lesser minorities (now led by the Czechs and Slovenes respectively) realised with dismay that they were the greatest losers. Whether the Sporazum would have turned out as effective an instrument of minority control as the Ausgleich remains problematical, since the advent of the Second World War all too quickly disrupted Yugoslavia. The Croat campaign of sustained and often violent 'direct pressure', like that of the Magyars before 1867, secured a victory over the Serb establishment, even though it may have been a classic case of 'too little, too late'.

The Slovene minority was too small to contemplate the frontal attack adopted by the Croats but its tactic of quiet infiltration brought considerable success. The Slovene language was sufficiently different from Serbo-Croat to make Serb takeover of Slovenia difficult, while the Serb-Slovene linguistic barrier was lower for the better-educated Slovenes. The happy chance that included Slovenia in Austria rather than Hungary after i 86p made the Slovenes the best-educated nationality in Yugoslavia and allowed them to acquire disproportionately high employment and influence in the state administration and bureaucracy. The Slovene Clerical Party led by Monsignor Anton Korosec patiently fostered the separate identity of the Slovenes and raised hopes that their undramatic penetration of the civil service would eventually secure autonomy for Slovenia. In Habsburg terms, the Slovenes were the Czechs of Yugoslavia. While the Serbs and Croats were locked in exhausting and often bloody conflict, the Slovenes were tip-toeing away with their clothes.

The remaining small minorities were divided between collaborators and 'provocateurs'. The Muslim Bosnians, led by Dr Spaho, followed the line that support for the government, whatever its complexion and policy, would always bring greater benefits to a small minority than pointless defiance. By contrast, the Magyars and Germans assumed a nuisance value out of all proportion to their small size as their kin states employed them as 'Trojan Horses' to try to bring down the Yugoslav state (although in the Banat the Serbs were quite adroit in the traditional imperial tactic of fomenting quarrels between minorities). In Kosovo, the Albanians gave double cause for concern through holding the records for the highest birth-rate in Europe and the highest proportion of expatriates of any east European state. The combination of these factors made Yugoslavia's south-western border seem extremely vulnerable, especially as the ominous patronage of Albania by Fascist Italy raised the spectre of Great Power intervention.

The principal reason for the fair success of the minorities' opposition within Yugoslavia was less the strength of their nationalism (even the Croat) than the temporary and uncharacteristic weakness of the Serbs. In 1915, Serbia may have lost as much as 1,000,000 of its population, a quarter of the total, sacrificing almost an entire generation of male adults to the First World War. Already labouring under a qualitative handicap, the Serb numerical loss allowed the demographic initiative to slip to the minorities. Had it not been for its wartime casualties, subsequently propounded as an extra justification for Serb leadership of the South Slavs, the Serb proportion of the total state population would have been nearer two-thirds than one-half, a demographic hegemony too emphatic for the minorities to resist. In the brutally realistic world of South Slav politics, Serbia's calamity became the minorities' opportunity. With the natural demographic dominance of the Serbs temporarily impaired, Yugoslavia became a major arena for competition between nationalities in the inter-war period.

Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were both artificial, multi-national states with a dubious legitimacy in an age of nationalism, a description which would serve equally well for the defunct Habsburg Empire. The Habsburg dilemma lived on in post-1918 Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. At the most trite yet revealing level of personality, resonant Habsburg echoes made themselves heard: in his last years as elder statesman of Czechoslovakia, President Masaryk enjoyed an almost mystical reverence comparable only to that surrounding the Emperor Franz Josef: and both King Alexander and later Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia have been hailed (admiringly and disapprovingly) as the 'Last of the Habsburgs'. Eschewing territorial expansionism, Czechoslovakia and especially Yugoslavia tacitly admitted that they were already geographically over-extended and demographically too heterogeneous. The Czechs and Serbs, without majorities within Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, could not hope to govern in a manner too repressive or provocative to their powerful minorities and settled for Czech and Serb empires, reserving their hopes for more unitary, homogenous nation states for the future.

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